April 14, 2017

IN LIKE FLYNN JR.:

EZRA COHEN-WATNICK: INSIDE THE RISE OF TRUMP'S INVISIBLE MAN IN THE WHITE HOUSE (JEFF STEIN ON 4/13/17, Newsweek)

Cohen-Watnick reportedly retrieved the documents from a classified CIA terminal in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House and gave them to Nunes, a California Republican who had been a member of Trump's transition team. They were intended to prove that former President Barack Obama was "wire tapping" Trump during the 2016 campaign. The documents did no such thing, other members of the panel concluded after studying them. What they actually showed is that U.S. intelligence agencies did have Trump's associates on their radar--but only because they were tracking Russian agents.

The incident triggered a House Ethics Committee probe into Nunes and forced him to recuse himself from his own panel's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. But it also prompted questions from longtime intelligence officials about how Cohen-Watnick, a 30-year-old with apparently only a single, allegedly trouble-filled, junior-level tour of duty with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in Afghanistan on his résumé, managed to secure one of the most consequential jobs in the White House: coordinating all of the U.S. intelligence community's operations with the Oval Office and Congress. In less than a year, Cohen-Watnick had been raised from the equivalent rank of an army captain to a three-star general.

"He makes sure they carry out the president's agenda," says a former White House National Security Council official, who, like every intelligence source consulted by Newsweek, declined to be identified discussing such sensitive issues. And that agenda, the president and his men have made clear, is to whittle down the power of the CIA.

How this young man amassed such influence mystifies longtime intelligence officials. How he hung on to his job after Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, successor to fired White House national security adviser Michael Flynn, reportedly tried to oust him following the Nunes affair is another part of the puzzle. [...]

In 2014, Obama fired Flynn, and since then administration officials have dumped on him in the press. But the surprise election of Trump in November 2016 gave Flynn a chance for redemption--and revenge. With his rising prominence in the Trump campaign, Flynn's adversaries recycled stories about his DIA ouster, but now there were also questions about Kremlin-financed trips to Moscow and ties to Turkish lobbyists. And Flynn was swimming in ever deeper conspiracy waters, now with activists who alleged that the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooter did not act alone, and that Hillary Clinton's campaign manager John Podesta was involved in a pedophile ring run beneath a Washington, D.C., family restaurant. Cohen-Watnick joined him in the so-called "Pizzagate" fray, tweeting about "Podesta's obsession with the occult." In another tweet, he referenced "the disgusting and potentially criminal behavior of the Clinton crime syndicate."

In January, Cohen-Watnick swept into office with Flynn and other associates from Gaffney's circle, including Bannon, Conway and Sebastian Gorka, another anti-Muslim hard-liner with ties to a Hungarian Nazi party. Meanwhile, Cohen-Watnick was getting married to a woman who, like Flynn and several other Trump aides, had ties to Russia. Rebecca Miller, four years younger than Cohen-Watnick, had worked on the Russian account in the D.C. office of Ketchum, the global powerhouse lobbying and public relations firm, according to her mother, Victoria Fraser, head of Washington University's Department of Medicine in St. Louis. During a 2014 event at the State Historical Society of Missouri, Fraser said her daughter's "big challenges right now are, Ketchum is responsible for providing PR and marketing to try to make Russia look better, which is particularly difficult when they're invading other countries and when Putin is somewhat out of control." Ketchum took a public relations blow when ProPublica reported that it had "placed pro-Russia op-eds in American publications by businesspeople and others without disclosing the role of the Russian government." The following year, it drew flak for placing an op-ed purporting to be written by Russian President Vladimir Putin in The New York Times arguing that Syrian rebels, not President Bashar al-Assad, were responsible for chemical attacks on civilians. According to a Ketchum spokesperson, Miller's work on the Russia account ended in September 2012. The company severed its ties with the Russian Federation in March 2015.

Cohen-Watnick and his wife have been reluctant to acknowledge anything about their professional lives or their history together. On November 11, 2016, the Ohr Kodesh Congregation, a conservative synagogue in Chevy Chase, held a kiddush, or small social ceremony, in honor of their "upcoming marriage." But despite prominent parents on both sides of the aisle, there is no account of their marriage in either The Washington Post or St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Miller's hometown newspaper. Nor do multiple search engines reveal a marriage license for the couple, who married in November 2016. In addition, records searches do not show them living together in Chevy Chase or another residence Cohen-Watnick claims in Miami. (According to Florida voting records, Cohen-Watnick is registered in Miami as a Republican "Hispanic male.") The White House has refused to release even a thumbnail biography of its senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council.

He's a ghost. And he seems to like it that way. "Ezra is really a big fan of covert-y action stuff," an official who worked with him at the NSC told The Washington Post, after "several current American officials" fingered Cohen-Watnick as one of two Trump aides who accessed those top-secret surveillance files for Nunes.

Long before that incident, though, veteran national security officials were astounded by the appointment of such a junior man as senior NSC adviser for intelligence issues. Among his predecessors were people who had deep familiarity with clandestine operations, such as future CIA Directors Robert Gates and George Tenet (who had previously been chief of staff on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence). In that job, says a former high-ranking intelligence official, you "need experience, not family connections."

"No one at his level could have possibly had the experience to be made senior director for intelligence programs--no way, no how," says Daniel Benjamin, an NSC staffer in the Bill Clinton administration who later became the State Department's top counterterrorism official. "So the fact that he got that job and that CIA, which usually controls that billet, was so eager to move him out, tells you a lot about the oddity of the situation," Benjamin tells Newsweek.

Posted by at April 14, 2017 4:29 PM

  

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