Report Finds No Wrongdoing in N.S.A. Hiring of Trump Loyalist

The Pentagon’s inspector general found no undue influence in Michael Ellis’s appointment, but recommended a new review of his handling of classified material.,

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WASHINGTON — A Pentagon inspector general’s report released on Thursday concluded that there was no undue pressure from the Trump White House to appoint Michael J. Ellis to the sensitive post of general counsel of the National Security Agency just before President Donald J. Trump left office.

But the report also found that the N.S.A.’s leadership acted appropriately in suspending Mr. Ellis days after he had been installed as the agency’s top lawyer because of two “security incidents.” He left the N.S.A. three months later. The inspector general recommended reopening an investigation into Mr. Ellis’s handling of classified documents.

The review largely confirmed the public reporting surrounding Mr. Ellis’s hiring, noting that Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, the N.S.A. director, had reservations about whether Mr. Ellis was the best candidate and balked at appointing him until directly ordered to do so by Christopher C. Miller, the acting secretary of defense at the time.

Mr. Ellis had been chosen by Paul C. Ney Jr., the Defense Department’s general counsel at the time, over two other candidates.

Mr. Ney vigorously defended his decision to hire Mr. Ellis to the inspector general, and denied that he had been subjected to any pressure from the White House.

The report said no other witnesses indicated that they had been under White House pressure at the time, and the inspector general’s review of Mr. Ney’s emails also did not turn up any evidence of a pressure campaign.

But two senior White House lawyers recommended Mr. Ellis to Mr. Ney. John A. Eisenberg, the National Security Council’s legal adviser, said he spoke to Mr. Ney two or three times about Mr. Ellis’s qualifications.

Pat A. Cipollone, who served as White House counsel in the Trump White House, also had asked Mr. Ney if he had chosen someone for the N.S.A. job and said “Michael’s a great guy.” Mr. Ney said there was no impropriety in the comment.

“I don’t feel pressure from them and I don’t, and I do not infer anything from them saying Michael Ellis is a good lawyer, he’s a good guy, he’d be great,” Mr. Ney was quoted in the report as saying.

General Nakasone had raised doubts about Mr. Ellis’s ability to lead a team of 100 lawyers and did not like how he had handled the classification review of a book by John R. Bolton, a former national security adviser. In August 2020, he told Mr. Ney he preferred another candidate and asked him to defer his decision until after the election in November.

After the election, the process to hire Mr. Ellis began. But in January, a senior N.S.A. official learned about an episode in which Mr. Ellis was accused of not returning a classified document to the N.S.A. and sharing it with a State Department official.

General Nakasone paused the hiring process on Jan. 15, but the same day Mr. Miller ordered him to hire Mr. Ellis, which he did the following day.

On Jan. 17, General Nakasone’s deputy briefed him on the security incidents involving Mr. Ellis’s purported mishandling of classified information. Three days later, on the day of President Biden’s inauguration, General Nakasone placed Mr. Ellis on leave, notifying Ezra Cohen, then the acting under secretary of defense for intelligence and security, of the decision.

Mr. Ellis resigned from his position on April 16, and the N.S.A. dropped its inquiry into his handling of the classified documents.

The inspector general said the security inquiry was sufficient cause for General Nakasone to put Mr. Ellis on leave but was critical of the agency for failing to complete the security review. Because Mr. Ellis serves in the Navy Reserve, the inspector general recommended a new review by the under secretary of defense for intelligence and security.

A spokesman for the N.S.A. said the agency cooperated with the inspector general’s investigation.

A request for comment from Mr. Ellis, directed to the Heritage Foundation, where he is a fellow, was not immediately returned.

But Mr. Cohen was critical of the security investigation, saying it should have been resolved before Mr. Ellis resigned.

“Unfortunately, this is yet another example of a deficient clearance process where federal employees and military members are held in inexplicably long periods of limbo without sufficient due process rights,” Mr. Cohen said.

Adam Goldman in Washington contributed reporting

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