Hours after President Joe Biden delivered his inaugural address promising to bring unity and healing to the country, his administration began a politically charged attack on a highly respected, newly appointed career intelligence official over fears he would be insufficiently loyal to Democratic partisans. The attempted purge has thus far followed the playbook publicly laid out by top Democrats and their left-wing media enablers.
In a stunning violation of precedent, Biden’s National Security Agency (NSA) placed General Counsel Michael J. Ellis on administrative leave pending a Defense Inspector General investigation of his recent appointment, as well as an unspecified claim of mishandling of classified information. Ellis has maintained a top security clearance, without any blemish, for more than a decade. He is a trained classification official both as a military officer and civilian.
While Ellis has prominent defenders from his many years of service in the intelligence community, his detractors include high profile participants in the Russia collusion hoax, proponents of former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s attempt to publish classified information in a book, and some of the individuals who orchestrated the Ukraine impeachment effort.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi publicly asserted, contrary to the evidence, that Ellis was “a relatively recent law school graduate with a limited resume.” In fact, he graduated from the top-ranked Yale Law School a decade ago, after graduating from Dartmouth College summa cum laude. He clerked for Judge Jeffrey Sutton on the 6th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals and Judge Amul Thapar on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. He’s served honorably as a U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer since 2007.
He worked for the House Intelligence Committee from 2013 to 2017. In that role, he worked closely with the NSA on legislation, oversight, and investigations. He was the lead staffer for the bipartisan committee report on the Edward Snowden disclosures. While Rep. Adam Schiff on Sunday denounced Ellis for thwarting Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s efforts to distribute and amplify information closely held by the National Security Council, he had previously praised Ellis’s work on the Snowden report.
Ellis helped draft the bipartisan Intelligence Authorization Acts, FISA reform bills, and cybersecurity information sharing laws. He is an expert on FISA and other intelligence collection authorities, and regularly briefed then-ranking member Schiff on those matters.
He served the Trump administration as deputy National Security Council legal advisor and then as senior director for Intelligence Programs on the National Security Council. Having worked closely with NSA at senior levels continuously since 2013, he has more relevant experience than any other general counsel in recent memory.
In a Washington Post article based largely on anonymous sources and absolutely riddled with factual errors, reporter Ellen Nakashima — who won a Pulitzer Prize for her role perpetuating the Russia collusion hoax — suggested that previous general counsels did not serve in political roles prior to their service. She quoted the most recent general counsel Glenn Gerstell saying the agency and its legal office have “a deep tradition of being nonpartisan and it would be important for anybody in the position of general counsel to discharge the job that way.”
Gerstell, who served from 2015 through last year, was a Barack Obama bundler who raised $50,000 for the Democrat in 2012, as well as chairman of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority. His predecessor Raj De was Obama’s own staff secretary, and credibly accused of being involved in improper politicization while a staffer on the 9/11 Commission.
The Lawfare blog, a primary mouthpiece for the architects of the Russia collusion hoax, disgraced former FBI Director James Comey in particular, has led the campaign to oust Ellis from his role. Mimicking the nebulous language once used to push the debunked Russia collusion hoax, Susan Hennessey wrote that “While important details remain unclear, media accounts include numerous indications of irregularity in the process by which Ellis was selected for the job, including interference by the White House. At a minimum, the evidence of possible violations of civil service rules demand immediate investigation by Congress and the inspectors general of the Department of Defense and the NSA.” Neither she, nor the media accounts she referenced, provided credible evidence for the claims.
In fact, the selection process for the general counsel position began a year ago. Multiple sources confirm that Ellis was found to be qualified for the position by a panel of career lawyers before any political appointee was involved in the process and he was interviewed by a panel that included a career intelligence lawyer. None of the partisans who oppose Ellis have put forth evidence of improper influence on the selection process.
Anonymous sources purportedly claim that NSA Director Paul Nakasone did not want Ellis in the role. But it’s not his say. The Defense Department general counsel selects the NSA general counsel because of a need for independence. The general counsel frequently needs to speak truthfully to the director and other senior officials, which is made more difficult if he or she serves at the pleasure of the director.
Defense Department General Counsel Paul Ney selected Ellis in November. But then the NSA slow-rolled Ellis’s appointment. Ellis passed his polygraph exam in December and was subsequently granted his security clearance by the NSA. Among the stalling tactics that NSA deployed was having Gen. Nakasone request an Office of Personnel and Management review. OPM informed him that they don’t review NSA appointments.
The refusal to appoint Ellis was in violation of merit system principles until it was ordered by the acting secretary of Defense. Pelosi and Schiff have justified their political interference in this career intelligence community position, normally considered off limits for political interference, by asserting without evidence that Ellis’s appointment must have been political.
Democratic activists on the Hill and at Lawfare have three main claims and complaints about Ellis. They claim that he was involved in Rep. Devin Nunes’s discovery of hundreds of instances of Obama-Biden officials unmasking Trump transition team members. The unmasked material frequently ended up leaked to media figures.
In March 2017, Nunes revealed that in the last three months of the Obama presidency, significant personal information from and about the Trump transition was collected and widely disseminated at intelligence agencies. While he said the collection of information may have been legally collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), he was “alarmed” by it.
Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice was asked about the discovery. She responded, “I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.” It turned out that she was lying on national television. She later claimed that while she did unmask the officials, “I leaked nothing to nobody.”
A meeting she unmasked — between Trump officials and the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates — did happen to leak to the Washington Post. UN Ambassador Samantha Power, of all people, unmasked nearly 300 Americans in 2016. And a whopping 39 Obama officials unmasked Michael Flynn, a frequent victim of leaked communications.
Among the unmaskers were officials with little legitimate need to access this kind of intelligence. They include former Vice President Joe Biden, Power, and Obama’s Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough.
Another criticism of Ellis is that he found former National Security Advisor Bolton to be attempting to publish classified information in a book attacking President Trump. That’s true, and career intelligence professionals up to and including the NSA director himself agreed with Ellis’s findings.
William Evanina, a 30-year veteran of the federal government and the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, swore in an affidavit that he reviewed Ellis’ declarations and that Bolton’s “unauthorized disclosure” of classified information “could reasonably be expected to enable foreign threat actors to cause serious, and sometimes grave, damage to our national and economic security.”
Nakasone wrote that he reviewed the excerpts, per Ellis’s request, and that he “identified classified information” that could “result in the permanent loss of a valuable SIGINT source and could cause irreparable damage to the U.S. SIGINT system.”
The final complaint offered by Ellis’s critics relates to the effort to leak the contents of Trump’s call with the president of Ukraine in order to foment a scandal and impeachment push. Byron York’s book “Obsession,” on the first impeachment, details how the only person on the call to have a problem with the call was Vindman.
In testimony, Vindman repeatedly said that he viewed Trump’s phone call with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky as “wrong,” but he was unable to articulate precisely why. He expressed frustration that the elected president was pushing a foreign policy at odds from the “interagency consensus” of the bureaucracy that he felt should control foreign policy.
While he was trying to use a whistleblower to get the news out, NSA officials tried to prevent rampant leaking by putting it on a secure server. Ellis was one of the officials allegedly trying to thwart the leaking, which angered Vindman.
The partisans’ rabid effort to oust Ellis includes an unexplained and entirely unsubstantiated allegation of mishandling classified information. That charge was made for the first time on January 20, 2021, and threatens not only his current job as general counsel but his ability to make a living and provide for his family.
Again, Ellis has maintained a top security clearance, without any blemish, for more than a decade. Ellis’s wife is an active-duty Air Force doctor. He raised their toddler for six months while she was deployed to Qatar. She is currently pregnant and in a high-risk pregnancy while continuing to work as an emergency room doctor during the COVID pandemic.
Speaking of unsubstantiated allegations that turn out to be false, a few years ago the New York Times published another error-riddled piece involving Nunes and Ellis, by Jason Zengerle:
Zengerle claims Nunes pushed Rogers to pursue leads that didn’t check out. He claims Nunes ‘had heard that a drone operator at an American air base in Germany said a drone had been flying over the Benghazi compound during the raid and captured video of the incident. According to a source familiar with the investigation, Rogers sent a committee staff member, Michael Ellis, to Germany to find and interview the American drone operator—who, it turned out, wasn’t even in the drone unit that covered Libya and had been telling tales to his parents, which had somehow made their way to Nunes.’
Apparently none of this is true. Ellis never went to Germany, according to multiple sources on the House Intelligence Committee familiar with his travels. And Nunes said the first time he even heard this story was with Zengerle telling it: ‘I don’t know anything about a drone operator and I have no idea what they’re talking about there.’
Trust in media has declined to an all-time low, with only 18 percent of Republicans trusting outlets. Only 57 percent of Democrats trust the news media. Nearly 60 percent of Americans believe that “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.”
The media-enabled push to help Biden politically interfere in a civil service position is an example of why media trust has cratered.