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Republican operative being installed as the NSA's top lawyer

Why did Team Trump scramble to install a Republican operative and Trump loyalist as the National Security Agency's top lawyer?
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A sign stands outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus on Thursday, June 6, 2013, in Fort Meade, Md.Patrick Semansky / AP file

Michael Ellis may not be a household name, but his name has popped up quite a bit in important stories from recent years. In 2017, for example, Ellis was accused of using his position in the White House counsel's office to feed sensitive information to then-House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).

Two years later, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified under oath that Ellis, a former Republican operative, was one of the officials responsible for transferring the infamous Trump/Zelensky call summary to the National Security Council's top-secret computer server.

More recently, the day after Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential race, a Trump administration official tapped Ellis to serve as general counsel of the National Security Agency. As of a few days ago, however, Ellis had not begun the job: Gen. Paul Nakasone, the NSA's director, didn't want him, and preferred to promote someone from within the agency.

It was against this backdrop that the Washington Post reported on Saturday night that acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller "ordered" the NSA director to install Ellis, a Trump loyalist, as the agency's top lawyer, whether Nakasone wanted him or not. A day later, we learned this is actually happening.

The National Security Agency is "moving forward" to install Michael Ellis, a former GOP political operative and White House official, as the agency's top lawyer, the agency said Sunday.... Ellis probably will start work Tuesday, the day before the Biden administration takes office, several people said.

National security experts are not pleased, and it's easy to understand why: NSA general counsel is an important job, and not a position for partisan operatives.

Some may see a story like this and assume it doesn't much matter, since the incoming administration will simply show Ellis the door in a few days and name a more qualified successor soon after.

The trouble in this instance is that it's not nearly that simple: Ellis' new job is not that of a political appointee. Rather, this is a career position, which means civil-service laws protect him from simply being fired.

That said, as the New York Times added, "civil servants can be easily moved in the Defense Department, so he could be given a legal job elsewhere in the sprawling department — overseeing compliance with environmental regulations at a remote military base, for example."

If you've ever seen the movie Office Space, imagine the basement office Initech executives set aside for Milton. This might very well be what happens to Ellis.

Nevertheless, what matters most in this story is why, exactly, Team Trump scrambled to put a partisan operative in such an important NSA position.

Susan Hennessey, a former lawyer in the NSA Office of General Counsel, explained over the weekend, "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.... The timing is suspect. This position has been unfilled since February.... There is no particular urgency in filling this position now, especially under such odd and irregular circumstances."

I don't imagine we've heard the last of this one. If there's a benign explanation for these moves, it's hiding well.