Former Spy Boss Hayden: Ellis NSA Appointment is 'Really Bad' (Updated)

The former NSA chief says Trump's mole can see anything he wants


UPDATE, Jan. 12: Gen. Paul Nakasone, the NSA director, has “placed Michael Ellis, a former Trump White House official, on indefinite leave pending an inquiry by the Pentagon inspector general into the circumstances of his selection as NSA general counsel,” an official told The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima.


“I saw this, and I said, ‘Oh, this is really, really bad,’” Michael Hayden says.

The retired Air Force general, who headed the National Security Agency as well as the CIA during his multi-decade government career, was explaining why the last-minute installation of right-wing operative Michael Ellis as the NSA’s top lawyer was so fraught with danger.

Bottom line: the NSA general counsel gets to see “everything” the agency does, Hayden told SpyTalk, from its super-secret code-breaking and eavesdropping operations to America’s most sensitive cyber duels with the likes of China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. 

He could also ask to see things like NSA intercepts of Russian President Vladimir Putin or other foreign leaders gossiping about or discussing their dealings with outgoing President Donald Trump, whose pressure on Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on Joe Biden’s son triggered his first impeachment and trial in the Senate.

“The family jewels,” they’re often called. Such secrets, which played a key role in the Allied victory over Germany and Japan in World War Two, have to be protected with “a bodyguard of lies,” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said.

As the NSA’s top lawyer, Ellis, notorious for his sycophantic service to outgoing President Donald Trump, as well as his time as an aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif, Trump’s obsessive protector at the House Intelligence Committee, has the authority to rummage through the NSA’s vaults in search of anything that might be damaging to the soon to be ex-commander-in-chief. Whether he would try to do so, during what’s expected to be a very short time in that office, is another question.

But Ellis’s devotion to Trump evidently has no bounds. As a lawyer on the White House National Security Council only weeks into Trump’s term in 2017, Ellis sought out and provided classified intelligence reports to Nunes in an attempt to discredit the Russia investigation. Nunes and Trump repeatedly accused the Obama administration of spying on his campaign, when the NSA intercepts  actually showed only that the names of Trump officials came up in discussions by foreign leaders. 

On Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanded that Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller stop his effort to “burrow” Ellis into the top rung of the NSA, calling the appointment “highly suspect.” Miller, whose own vault from midlevel official to Pentagon chief in November was widely criticized as inappropriate and highly partisan, ignored it.

Can Ellis demand to see anything? I asked Hayden, who is active on social media while still recovering from a stroke he suffered in late 2018.

“Yes, of course,” he said. The general counsel “needs to be conversant with every program” that NSA runs, he said, a number of which play up to the line of, and sometimes cross into, dubious legal territory, as the NSA’s warrantless intercepts of U.S. citizens’ communications did under Hayden himself, right after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. During his own term as NSA director, from 1999 to 2005, Hayden said he consulted with his general counsel “all of the time,” sometimes multiple times during the day.

Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller demanded on Saturday that the agency’s director, Gen. Paul Nakasone, stop dragging his heels and accept Ellis’s appointment by 6 p.m. Her did so.

It was not clear Tuesday whether Ellis had actually started work at the NSA’s Ft. Meade, Md. headquarters. The NSA said in a statement Tuesday that it is “moving forward with his employment,” but declined to clarify whether Ellis had actually started work in the last hours of the Trump presidency.

Elliis will be a member of the Senior Executive Service, a Civil Service job that makes it very difficult for anyone to remove him. But he could be reassigned to a lesser post under the incoming Biden administration, like “overseeing compliance with environmental regulations at a remote military base,” as the New York Times’ Julian E. Barnes and Michael Schmidt put it.

One mystery for Hayden is why NSA Director Nakasone, a four-star Army general who also heads the U.S. Cyber Command, caved to pressure from Acting Defense Department Secretary Miller.

“I don't know, I just don’t know,” Hayden told SpyTalk. “I wouldn't have done it.”

As soon as he got word of the move, he thought to himself, “this is not good at all. This is really important.”

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