Top Intelligence Official on National Security Council Is Out
The man McMaster couldn’t fire has now been fired.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the 31-year-old hired by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn to serve as the senior director for intelligence programs at the National Security Council, was fired on Wednesday afternoon, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
The White House confirmed the decision late Wednesday afternoon.
According to one source close to the White House, the decision comes from the current national security advisor, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who is trying to root out the people at the NSC connected to a controversial concept paper about how Trump was under attack from globalists and Islamists trying to destroy America. “It’s everyone who touched that concept paper,” the source told Foreign Policy.
Rich Higgins, the reported author of the memo who was serving in the NSC’s strategic-planning office, was let go on July 21, the Atlantic reported Wednesday.
“General McMaster appreciates the good work accomplished in the NSC’s Intelligence directorate under Ezra Cohen’s leadership,” the White House statement said. “He has determined that, at this time, a different set of experiences is best-suited to carrying that work forward. General McMaster is confident that Ezra will make many further significant contributions to national security in another position in the administration.”
Cohen-Watnick came to the NSC from a position at the Defense Intelligence Agency, where Flynn was director until he was ousted by President Barack Obama for his management and leadership style. There is little in the public record about Cohen-Watnick, though he reportedly survived a previous McMaster attempt to remove him. There was a great deal of distrust between Cohen-Watnick and the intelligence community, partly due to his relative lack of experience. The situation only grew worse when in March, Cohen-Watnick forced out a CIA officer who was on loan to the NSC and working under him. According to the Washington Post, he “was told without explanation to clear out his desk and return to the agency.”
The firing comes amid more unrest in the White House. On Monday, newly minted White House Chief of Staff John Kelly dismissed brand new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci. Last week, McMaster removed Derek Harvey, the top Middle East advisor on the NSC, from his post. Harvey and Cohen-Watnick were viewed as allies within the NSC and together had pushed for more aggressive actions against Iranian proxy forces in Syria.
Top Trump advisors Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner have reportedly protected Cohen-Watnick so far. But now, with Kelly as White House Chief of Staff, even Bannon and Kushner need permission to talk to the President.
Cohen-Watnick’s past is still largely a mystery. He worked at DIA, where he rose several ranks but otherwise didn’t appear to make much of a mark. His name surfaced as a possible source of a drummed up scandal about Obama National Security Council official Susan Rice “unmasking” the names of Trump officials in intelligence reports.
Rice has denied she made any requests for political reasons.
According to a profile in the Atlantic, Cohen-Watnick liked to argue about the Iraq War at his Maryland high school, fell into libertarian tendencies while in college, and gradually became more hawkish. Like many, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were a turning point for him, pushing him to turn dreams of being a “spy” into reality. Newsweek reported he served in the Defense Clandestine Service and attended the CIA’s training school, nicknamed “the Farm.”
Last summer, reportedly unhappy at the DIA, he turned his attention toward landing a job on Capitol Hill at one of the congressional committees. Instead, he found himself recruited by the Trump campaign during the transition.
Kate Brannen contributed reporting to this article.
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Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll