The White House is an extraordinarily leaky ship. Case in point: when Sarah Huckabee Sanders tore into a room full of White House communications staffers after aide Kelly Sadler’s comment that John McCain was “dying anyway” was leaked to the press, she reportedly told them,“I am sure this conversation is going to leak, too. And that’s just disgusting.” And she was right: five people—five!—leaked the details of that meeting to Axios.
Now, the Daily Beast reports that Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a former National Security Council staffer and diehard Trump loyalist who now works for the Department of Justice, had a particularly novel idea to try to stop leaks: spying on his coworkers.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick, whom former national security adviser Michael Flynn brought onto the NSC as senior director for intelligence, sought technical solutions in early 2017 for collecting and analyzing phone and other data on White House colleagues for interactions with reporters. He portrayed his desired leak hunt as an “insider threat” detection effort, according to the ex-officials. Those who heard of it presumed it would focus on NSC staffers held over from the Obama administration.
It is unknown whether Cohen-Watnick’s efforts actually resulted in any monitoring program. The former officials noted the overwhelming technical and legal hurdles to doing so. One called it “wholly inappropriate” for Cohen-Watnick, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, to do anything of the sort, considering it a blatant attempt at intimidating his colleagues. Another, who agreed the proposed effort was inappropriate, likened it to a “Keystone Cop thing.”
Ironically, Cohen-Watnick himself was reported by the New York Times to be one of two White House sources who leaked intelligence reports to Rep. Devin Nunes showing that Trump and his associates were swept up in surveillance of foreign officials by American spy agencies. (His lawyer denied this to the Daily Beast.)
One of the site’s sources referred to Cohen-Watnick as “the one most likely to end up like Ollie North,” which at this point could mean he’ll either end up trading arms illegally to back right wing death squads in Latin America or as the president of the National Rifle Association, or maybe both.
Either way, it appears that Cohen-Watnick’s idea was more or less a bullshit intimidation tactic:
From a technical perspective, the project would likely require outside vendors, so as to avoid tasking the FBI or intelligence agencies with effectively spying on the NSC, and would rapidly create a problem on where to securely store NSC staffer communications data, which would include highly sensitive and inevitably classified material. It would also have represented a substantial management challenge at a time when the NSC was filled with top-level turmoil. Former NSC officials found themselves at a loss to figure out how Cohen-Watnick expected his desired monitoring to actually work.
Accordingly, none of the sources who discussed this episode with The Daily Beast were confident that Cohen-Watnick would ever have succeeded in launching an insider-threat program. They considered it instead a misguided effort at intimidation. The Daily Beast has no evidence to indicate any of this actually happened, something Zaid’s statement on behalf of Cohen-Watnick bolsters.
“This seemed more of a knee-jerk retaliation driven by frustration than any serious effort to address a real threat,” a former NSC staffer told the Daily Beast.
Cohen-Watnick moved briefly to the software company Oracle following his exit from the White House, but he was recently hired by the Justice Department last month to advise Jeff Sessions on issues of national security, counterintelligence, and counterterrorism. Bloomberg reported that this came at the request of Trump himself; the Daily Beast reports that Cohen-Watnick’s former colleagues view him as a “political commissar” who can keep Sessions in line. with Trump.
Whatever the case, his new coworkers at the Justice Department will no doubt be absolutely thrilled that they now work with an (allegedly) aspiring snitch. Definitely a good reputation to have.