Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Who Does Ezra Cohen-Watnick Work For In His National Security Council Position?


The only known photo of Cohen-Watkick outside of Moscow

Way back in April, we warned DWT about a low-profile Trumpist connected to the Kremlin, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, likely to cause problems for Americans in the future. Kremlin spy Michael Flynn brought him into TrumpWorld. The 31 year old Cohen-Watnick may well be a Putin mole inside the National Security Council, where he works as a senior director. As soon as he was hired-- with assurances from Trump he would have control over NSC staffing-- Lt. General H.R. McMaster immediately started removing the Russian spies Flynn had brought into the NSC and quickly moved to fire Cohen-Watnick. Bannon appealed to another Putin-puppet inside the Trump Regime, Kushner-in-law, and they persuaded Trump to go back on his assurances to McMaster and over-rule him on Cohen-Watnick. It's widely believed that Cohen-Watnick, who had been illicitly feeding Devin Nunes selective government documents, will eventually be charged with purloining classified intelligence reports and using them for political purposes, a crime. Putin pays Cohen-Watnick through his wife, Becky, who works as a Russian propaganda agent.

Sunday, Atlantic reporter Rosie Gray took at look at what Cohen-Watnick is doing for Putin inside the Trump Regime. She reported, as we did in April that the only person McMaster couldn't get out of the NSC was Cohen-Watnick. McMaster tried to remove him in March," reported Gray, "but President Trump, at the urging of Bannon and Jared Kushner, told McMaster that Cohen-Watnick was staying." As senior director for intelligence programs on the NSC Coehn-Watnick is in an extremely key position as the person meant to coordinate and liaise between the U.S. intelligence community and the White House.

"If the incumbent has an effective working relationship with the national-security adviser or even the president directly, the senior director for intelligence has an opportunity to exercise considerable influence on intelligence policy, covert actions, and sensitive collection operations," said Stephen Slick, a former CIA official who held the position during the Bush administration.

The CIA has traditionally had control over who fills this position, and normally the job is staffed by a more experienced official. McMaster, assuming he’d be allowed to relieve or reassign Cohen-Watnick, had gone so far as to interview Cohen-Watnick’s potential replacement, Linda Weissgold, a veteran CIA officer.

Despite his prominent, and apparently quite secure, position in Trump’s NSC, little is known about Cohen-Watnick, who had spent much of his short career as a low-ranking official at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Information about him in publicly available sources is scarce. Few higher-ups from the DIA remember him. Only one picture of him can be found online, a snapshot unearthed by Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen.

Unlike other White House officials who have become public figures in their own right, Cohen-Watnick never speaks for himself publicly, leaving others to fill the void. Yet he hardly comes into sharper focus when you talk to co-workers, friends, and former colleagues. Ask around about Ezra Cohen-Watnick, and people get defensive. Some profess not to know him, or ask why anyone would want to write about him. Others simply refuse to discuss him.

“I won’t talk to any journalist about Ezra,” said Michael Ledeen, a Flynn confidant who knows Cohen-Watnick well.

“Is it one of your hit pieces?” asked Bannon, who didn’t respond to a further request for comment.

Bannon and Ledeen may be wary of talking about Cohen-Watnick after his first, and thus far only, turn in the national spotlight. Washington got its first real look at Cohen-Watnick when he was identified as one of two White House sources who provided House Intelligence chairman Devin Nunes with evidence that former national security adviser Susan Rice requested the “unmasking” of the names of Trump associates in intelligence documents. In the intelligence world, incidental collection refers to intelligence agencies obtaining, in the course of monitoring foreigners, communications that either refer to or involve Americans, whose names are typically “masked” unless officials request that they be “unmasked.”

The incident, coming in the aftermath of Trump baselessly accusing his predecessor of wiretapping Trump Tower, became one of the first dust-ups related to the investigations into possible Russian collusion during the 2016 campaign that have gripped the White House. The president later accused Rice of having committed a crime; for her part, Rice has denied that she ordered the unmasking for political purposes.

Despite that early controversy, Cohen-Watnick retains one of the most consequential intelligence jobs in the nation, and his influence is rising. He is in the thick of some of the most important policy fights at the White House; he is viewed as an Iran hawk and has been characterized, for instance, as a main proponent of expanding U.S. efforts against Iran-backed militias in Syria. And beyond policy specifics, he’s become a flashpoint in the long-running tension between Trump and the intelligence community, a part of the U.S. government that the president has at times openly disdained.

Yet what we don’t know about Cohen-Watnick far outstrips what we do. Was he a central player in the Nunes scandal, or just a bystander? Has he retained his job due to his talent, or is he being protected because he's advancing the agenda of powerful West Wing patrons? What, besides loyalty to the president, are his credentials? Is he Flynn's mole on the council, or does he not even know the deposed national-security adviser all that well? Is he brash and difficult to work with, or modest and brilliant? And perhaps most important: Now that he has the president’s ear, what will he whisper into it?

...Newsweek reported that Cohen-Watnick entered the Defense Clandestine Service in 2012 and was sent to “The Farm,” the CIA training facility in Virginia, in 2013. Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen reported on Twitter that Cohen-Watnick had done work on Haiti while based out of the Department of Defense’s Miami office. Records show he registered to vote in 2012 with a Miami address, as a Republican and as a Hispanic male (his mother is Colombian).

According to a former senior intelligence official, Cohen-Watnick later served overseas in Afghanistan at a CIA base. “He was embedded with the Agency guys,” said a person familiar with Cohen-Watnick’s career. “But the Agency guys were all like ‘Fuck this guy, he’s just here to spy on us for Flynn and the DIA.’”

A White House official said that Cohen-Watnick did not know Flynn at the time he was in Afghanistan but did not dispute that there were “rivalries between CIA and DIA.”

It was Cohen-Watnick’s connection with Michael Flynn that would catapult him into the top ranks of America’s intelligence officials. But even the seemingly straightforward question of how and when they met yields contradictory and conflicting accounts. One person familiar with his career asserted that Cohen-Watnick had met Matt Flynn, Michael Flynn’s son, at “The Farm.” Another, a former senior intelligence official, said he had briefed Flynn at the DIA.

According to a third person familiar with the matter, the real story is that Cohen-Watnick actually met Flynn much later, in 2016, at a coffee arranged by Michael Ledeen’s wife Barbara, who Cohen-Watnick knows from growing up outside of Washington. Ledeen is a friend of Flynn’s and co-authored the book Field of Fight with him. Barbara introduced him to Cohen-Watnick; the couple connected the young officer with Flynn, and the two kept in touch over the course of the year. Flynn became a prominent surrogate for the Trump campaign, famously leading a “lock her up” chant at the Republican National Convention, and was even considered as the running mate.

Flynn’s time at the helm of the DIA was notoriously troubled. The general came in with a brash approach that rubbed his colleagues the wrong way and eventually led to his being forced out in 2014 by then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Mike Vickers.

This appears to have been a time at which Cohen-Watnick was at a crossroads. In the summer of 2016, Cohen, unhappy at the DIA, began applying for positions on Capitol Hill, interviewing with the House Armed Services Committee, a congressional staffer said. He was notified on August 16, 2016, that he wouldn’t be getting the job. Later that year, in November, Cohen-Watnick married Rebecca Miller, according to a notice on his family’s synagogue’s website.

Trump’s election changed everything for Cohen-Watnick, as it did for many people in Washington. He was chosen for the NSC job during the transition, surprising his new colleagues.

“I didn’t know Ezra from Adam,” said one former intelligence officer who is a member of the NSC. “I didn’t know what job he was going to have in the transition. I met him a few times. I didn’t realize he was running it at first.”

“It’s a very important position and essentially it’s a deep cull,” said a White House colleague who has known Cohen-Watnick for years. “It’s an early pick.” This official described Cohen-Watnick as someone who would seem like a natural choice for the job in five or 10 years’ time, but not now.

“It is noteworthy that someone with very limited experience (a very junior GG-12 in DIA) is appointed to such a senior and critical position,” said Doug Wise, who was for a time Flynn’s top deputy at the DIA . (GG-12 is the equivalent of an Army captain in the DIA; Cohen-Watnick’s rank before he left was actually GS-13, equivalent to a major, according to a source familiar with his career). “This is especially noteworthy when you compare Cohen to some of the individuals who have served in that position, George Tenet, David Shedd, Mary Sturtevant, Stephen Slick, and other very experienced officers were already members of the Senior Intelligence Service when they were appointed. These and the other officers who served in that position were career intelligence officials with serious credentials, demonstrated maturity, and a wealth of experience."

One way or another, Michael Flynn seems to have elevated Cohen-Watnick to his high station in the Trump administration. What remains a mystery is who exactly has protected him since Flynn went down, and why.

Cohen-Watnick’s ability to hang on despite the direct attempt by his superior to remove him raised eyebrows across Washington, and especially in the intelligence world.

“It is very unusual that when H.R. McMaster tried to move Cohen to another position within the NSC, his decision was publicly overturned by the president,” Wise said. “This says much more about Cohen’s political connections than his experience in the intelligence business."

Here, again, multiple officials directly familiar with the events offer contrasting versions of what took place. Some insist that Kushner and Bannon were willing to expend capital on behalf of Cohen-Watnick. According to one person with direct knowledge of the meeting, the roots of their loyalty to Cohen-Watnick stem from a briefing he delivered during Trump’s first visit to the White House situation room in February, at which Kushner was present as well as Pence. Kushner and the president were apparently impressed with the young briefer and took an interest in him.

“Ezra is deeply thoughtful, hard working, and committed to serving the president,” Kushner said, offering a rare on-the-record comment, which is itself a testament to Cohen-Watnick’s importance.

But a favorable first impression doesn’t quite explain the president intervening to prevent his boss from removing him. Others stressed his commitment to Trump’s worldview, such as it is Trump’s foreign policy statements have been long on rhetoric, but short on specifics-- prompting leading figures within the White House to contend for influence, seeking to persuade the president to back their preferred approaches. Those drawn from the ranks of the Republican foreign-policy establishment tend to favor its traditional views: committed to longstanding alliances like NATO, skeptical of Russia, and supportive of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others, who supported Trump’s insurgent campaign early on, tend to favor the ideas he advocated on the stump: concern that allies are freeloading, interest in strengthening ties with Russia, and a focus on the threat posed Islamic extremism in nations like Iran.

This split has created a decision-making process in which the responses to each unfolding event can point in a different policy direction than the last. After the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians in April, for example, Trump ordered strikes against one of their airbases, angering Syria's ally Russia. But the Trump administration recently announced a ceasefire agreement for southwest Syria negotiated with Russia.

In this context, a staffer who personally briefs the president on his options can be an invaluable ally to other senior officials. And in an administration that has struggled to fill senior national-security roles with appointees sympathetic to Trump’s ideas, a staffer whose views are closer to the president’s than to the think-tanks that line Massachusetts Avenue may be too valuable to lose.

“I would describe President Trump’s foreign-policy vision as absolutely one Ezra completely supports,” said the White House colleague who has known Cohen-Watnick for years. “Ezra has consistently provided value, insight, and support at the highest levels of the White House.”

This may be why several White House staffers used the same word to describe Cohen-Watnick: loyal. One White House official praised Cohen-Watnick as a "true professional and most importantly he is incredibly loyal to the president and this administration.”

“He’s loyal to the president and he’s made a super impression on everyone that deals with him, me included,” said the former intelligence officer who is now a senior NSC official.

The Nunes scandal cemented Cohen-Watnick's reputation as a loyalist and as someone who could withstand the heat of public controversy. But once more, different officials offer flatly contradictory versions of what transpired.

... Whether or not Cohen-Watnick was actually one of Nunes's sources, the public reports tied him to the controversy. They also left the impression that, to defend the president against claims he had leveled unsubstantiated charges of wiretapping against his predecessor, Cohen-Watnick had been prepared to attack the actions of NSC officials and of other elements of the intelligence community. The reports about the Nunes episode suggested to career staffers, perhaps unfairly, that the NSC’s senior director for intelligence was less interested in presenting their views to the president than in imposing the president’s views on them.

Since then, the conflicts within the NSC have settled down, at least publicly. But this is the Trump White House, a hotbed of resentments even when they're not spilling over into public view. Cohen-Watnick survived, but he's remained a topic of gossip and a target of leaks—a flashpoint in the ongoing fight over the administration’s foreign policy.

The Washington Post reported in April that days after McMaster’s effort to remove Cohen-Watnick, the CIA’s liaison to the White House was fired. The Guardian's story on the firing cited sources describing it as an “act of retaliation” against the CIA for encouraging McMaster to sack Cohen-Watnick, a report unlikely to endear him to his colleagues.

But then, McMaster himself became the target of unflattering leaks. In May, Bloomberg reported that Trump had “screamed” at McMaster in a phone call and had become “disillusioned” with him, and that Flynn loyalists on the NSC perceived McMaster as trying to “trick” the president into supporting nation-building efforts. Also in May, Foreign Policy reported that “the knives are out” for McMaster over internal conflicts on Afghanistan policy, with him on one side and Bannon on the other. Foreign Policy noted that McMaster has become the target of online critics, most notably Mike Cernovich, the pro-Trump activist and blogger. Cernovich has also targeted other McMaster allies in the NSC such as Dina Powell.

Cernovich has cited White House sources repeatedly in his reports, though he has told me that he doesn’t know who his sources are and relies on burner phones to keep in touch with them.

One of the most recent McMaster-related leaks was to the AP last week; sources said McMaster had told foreign officials he disapproves of Trump’s closeness with Russia. The story made West Wing senior staff “furious,” according to a senior White House official, who added “if true, a man of honor would resign.”

The leaks have created an atmosphere of suspicion on the NSC, where morale has never been particularly high since the start of the administration. But they’re not always unflattering; some leaks have suggested a prominent policy role for the young staffer. Cohen-Watnick has developed a reputation as one of the primary proponents of an aggressive, Flynn-style stance towards Iran within the NSC. A recent story in the New York Times said that Cohen-Watnick was pushing for regime change in Iran from within the administration. And another recent story in Foreign Policy tagged him and Derek Harvey, the NSC’s top official on Middle East issues, as pushing for increased action against Iranian-backed forces in Syria.

“I don’t think it was accurate at all,” said the former intelligence official on the NSC of the Foreign Policy piece, calling it “fake news recycling other fake news.” This official argued that Cohen-Watnick, in his role as the liaison between the White House and intelligence agencies, has no purview over Iran policy: “I’ve never heard Ezra talk about; it’s not in his lane and he’s not involved in those regional policy discussions.”

Furthermore, this official said, those who think NSC officials are exerting broad influence over policy are misreading the current NSC by comparing it to the Obama-era one, where “they were micromanagers who had a long screwdriver and were fundamentally calling the shots even on tactical-level operations in places like Syria and Iraq.”

“I’ve never seen the media [more] united about a topic than around Ezra and that’s a cause of curiosity amongst anyone with some sense of skepticism,” said the White House official who is close to Cohen-Watnick.

Cohen-Watnick’s allies see the leaks about him as evidence of a concerted campaign backed by his detractors in the intelligence community. They suggest that this is motivated by his conflict with the CIA. And they have a different theory as to why he has retained his job, and why he’s drawn attacks: It’s because, they insist, he’s good at what he does.

“He’s a genuinely funny, sardonic, very intelligent, interesting human. He’s not a robot or the way he’s been portrayed,” said one of the senior White House officials. “That human element has been I think completely lost in all of the coverage of him.”

“He’s very engaging, very personable, he tries to connect with people,” said the former intelligence officer on the NSC. But he is “able to parse and probe in a way that makes some of his interlocutors very uncomfortable.” Plus, “the fact that he’s younger than many of these people creates a natural backlash.”

This official described a recent interagency meeting in which Cohen-Watnick was asking about the reasons for covert programs in a country that “on the surface seemed to make sense,” but Cohen “identified a waste of resources and ineffective application,” a duplication of efforts costing an extra $30 million.

Cohen-Watnick’s intense approach, this person said, “causes some people to respond negatively rather than saying a-ha, this is a good thing, now we can reprogram.” CIA representatives pushed back on Cohen-Watnick, and the atmosphere was “frustrated.”

Like most people in this kind of job, Cohen-Watnick is a workaholic, sometimes sleeping on his couch in case he has to respond to something or go somewhere in the middle of the night, the White House colleague who knows him well said. Asked what he does for fun, the colleague said Cohen-Watnick works out and reads military history and philosophy.

It’s an appealing account. The trouble is, like most everything else about Cohen-Watnick, it’s all but impossible to verify, or to reconcile with other versions. Perhaps it’s because he’s emerged so swiftly from the murky world of intelligence. Or maybe it’s because he sits on the fault line of a fractured administration. But now that he’s in the spotlight, he may find further scrutiny hard to avoid.

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At 4:34 AM, Anonymous Hone said...

What do you mean - his wife is a Russian propaganda agent? You never go into this any further and this is a critical matter. She gets paid by Russia? To do what exactly? . How does someone get security clearance with this?

At 5:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hone, with the democraps being irrelevant and all, and with this guy flying under the radar (no free press), it's no problem to get a clearance no matter what. Besides, in this admin, Russia is like England.
If the democraps were NOT irrelevant, I kind of suspect nothing would change in this regard.

One must ask why McMaster doesn't resign since he was lied to and since he has to keep a Russian agent on his staff.

But then one will remember that McMaster was forced to lie to the public before for this fat fuck playing president in his sand box. He didn't resign then either.

McMaster is part of the cesspool. Never forget that.


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