More serious is a move, reported in Tuesday’s Washington Post, to make Michael Ellis—senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council and a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, Trump’s most loyal servant on the House Intelligence Committee—the general counsel of the National Security Agency. This was done at the insistence of the White House, over the objections of the NSA director, Gen. Paul Nakasone, who preferred to promote a professional staffer instead.
Two things are significant about this move. First, the general counsel is a Civil Service position, meaning Ellis will have protections against being fired for political reasons (thought he could be transferred to a different job) under a new administration. Second, the NSA—the nation’s largest and most secretive intelligence agency—has the technical tools to spy on American citizens and engage in other illegal and politically motivated acts. (During the Nixon administration, the NSA and CIA spied on political enemies and anti-war protesters.) The agency’s large staff of lawyers, who were put in place as part of the post-Nixon reforms, stand as the only effective force that blocks this tendency, and they take this job very seriously. Installing a rank partisan as the agency’s top lawyer endangers this thin veneer of safety.
As the Post reported, Ellis played a key role in gaining access to intelligence files that his former boss, Nunes, hoped (fruitlessly) would buttress claims that Obama had spied on the Trump campaign in 2016. Ellis was also the one who proposed taking the memorandum of Trump’s famous phone call with the Ukrainian President—the one in which he pressured the Ukrainian to launch a probe of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter—and burying it in a highly classified server.