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Pelosi calls for halt in efforts to install Trump loyalist as NSA’s top lawyer

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds a news conference last week at the Capitol.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds a news conference last week at the Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has demanded that acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller immediately halt efforts to install Michael Ellis, a former Republican Party operative, as the lead lawyer for the National Security Agency.

In a letter to Miller sent late Sunday, Pelosi (D-Calif.) questioned the timing of the move to place Ellis as the NSA’s general counsel, within 72 hours of President-elect Joe Biden taking office, as an attempt to “burrow” a President Trump loyalist into a highly sensitive intelligence position in the Biden administration.

The Pentagon general counsel had selected Ellis for the job in November, after a civil service competition and under pressure from the White House, people familiar with the matter said at the time. However, NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone had concerns about Ellis’s selection and took steps to ensure the process was thorough, which delayed his installation, according to several people familiar with the issue, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

Miller on Saturday ordered Nakasone to immediately place Ellis in position as the NSA’s general counsel. Ellis accepted the final job offer Saturday afternoon, and the agency was “moving forward” with his employment, the NSA said in a statement Sunday.

Pelosi called the circumstances and timing of Ellis’s placement “highly suspect.”

“The efforts to install him or ‘burrow’ him into a highly sensitive intelligence position 72 hours prior to the beginning of a new administration manifest a disturbing disregard for our national security,” Pelosi stated in her letter to Miller.

Pelosi does not have the authority to stop Ellis’s hiring and it is unlikely that her letter will do much to affect the process. In a statement Sunday, Pentagon public affairs officer Russell Goemaere said that once a candidate is selected through the merit system, meets the job requirements and accepts an offer, if the person is not installed, “it exposes the department, agency and senior leadership to claims for a violation of the merit system principles and processes.” Congressional or news media attention to a hiring decision is not justification “to delay placing a selected qualified individual in a position,” he said.

Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, said Monday that the speaker had made her concerns known as “Congress obviously has a clear constitutional authority to conduct oversight.” Pelosi’s letter also suggested that she and Miller had spoken by phone earlier Sunday about her concerns.

Other Democratic lawmakers have also expressed their fears that, as NSA general counsel, Ellis will politicize a role that should remain free of partisan influences.

“I think it’s very clear this is a part of the administration’s effort to embed people in the civil service who are political and partisan actors who don’t belong there,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Sunday on “Face The Nation.”

In her letter, Pelosi requested that the acting inspector general conduct a detailed check of the hiring process that had taken place, arguing that Ellis — “a relatively recent law school graduate with a limited résumé” — had been chosen because of White House interference over more qualified candidates.

She also suggested that Ellis had been involved in activities, including shielding information about Trump’s call with the president of Ukraine in July 2019, that should be considered disqualifying. Ellis formerly served as a senior official on the National Security Council under Trump, and as chief counsel to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) when Nunes was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during which the president asked Zelensky to investigate Biden, led to Trump’s impeachment in the House in December 2019.

“I have serious concerns about your statement that this process was free from political interference,” Pelosi wrote to Miller. “The NSA General Counsel, which involves supervising many intelligence community attorneys and interacting with intelligence agencies, is a highly sensitive career position for which candidates are selected, based on merit and free from political influence.”

Ellis is slated to start the new job on Tuesday, a day before Biden is inaugurated, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity. An NSA representative on Monday declined to comment, pointing to the agency’s statement from the previous day. A representative for Biden’s transition team also declined to comment.

Should Ellis start his job as general counsel, Biden will have options to remove him from the post, as The Washington Post’s Tonya Riley has reported. Ellis could be reassigned to another senior role in the Defense Department, at the discretion of the Pentagon’s general counsel or acting general counsel. He could also be fired if a new general counsel under Biden thinks Ellis’s installation violated the law or policies designed to prevent last-minute job filling of political personnel into career positions.

Tonya Riley contributed to this report.