WASHINGTON — One of US President Donald Trump’s top intelligence directors was the latest person to be fired in a string of shake-ups at the White House and National Security Council.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick became a focal point for top national security advisers earlier this year when CIA leaders raised concerns about him with Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
A White House statement Wednesday said, “General McMaster appreciates the good work accomplished in the NSC’s Intelligence directorate under Ezra Cohen’s leadership.”
It said McMaster “has determined that, at this time, a different set of experiences is best-suited to carrying that work forward.”
It said he would get another job within the administration.
McMaster moved to replace the Jewish official when the concerns were raised in March, but Cohen-Watnick appealed to Trump’s top advisers, Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, who got Trump to intervene to save his job.
Cohen-Watnick was a protege of Trump’s initial national security adviser, Michael Flynn, having worked for him at the Pentagon’s intelligence shop.
In March, the New York Times reported that Cohen-Watnick was one of two White House aides who leaked information to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, that Nunes and the White House apparently hoped would vindicate Trump’s claim in February that Barack Obama had eavesdropped on him.
Trump made the wiretapping claim, without citing evidence, on Twitter in February. Intelligence and law enforcement officials, along with Democratic and Republican lawmakers, responded by saying there was no evidence to show that Obama had wiretapped Trump.
According to the Times, Cohen-Watnick started to review highly classified information after Trump posted his tweet in a bid to substantiate it. He and a colleague, Michael Ellis – formerly a staffer on the House Intelligence Committee – then contacted Nunes, who was on Trump’s transition team.
A US official confirmed to The Associated Press at the time that Cohen-Watnick had access to that kind of intelligence materials, but maintained he did not play a role in helping the congressman access the documents.
As the NSC’s senior director for intelligence programs, Cohen-Watnick was one of about a dozen people in the White House with access to a full range of classified information, including details of US covert programs. His position also gave him the ability to request intelligence products from agencies.
Cohen-Watnick’s removal comes after the revelation by The Atlantic on Wednesday of the dismissal of Rich Higgins, another Iran hawk who was the NSC’s director of strategic planning. Higgins was sacked for circulating a memo in which he alleged that there was a “Maoist” insurgency within and without the government of “globalists and Islamists.”
Also gone is Derek Harvey, who held the Middle East portfolio at the NSC, and who also was an Iran hawk, and who may assume another role in the administration. McMaster tapped Michael Bell, a retired army colonel who has a conventional career portfolio, to replace Harvey.
The removals come as McMaster seeks to consolidate his control of security policy, and remove loyalists to Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser who left after less than a month because of revelations that he had obscured Russia ties.
Notably, however, all three differ sharply from the relatively moderate Iran policy espoused by McMaster. Last month, McMaster joined Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis in persuading Trump to recertify Iran’s compliance with the Iran nuclear deal; Trump had been leaning toward decertification, which could trigger a crisis with US allies who favor the deal, struck by Obama. The deal trades sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program.
Within days of the recertification, it was reported that Trump had authorized the establishment of a rival group within the White House, led by Bannon, that would seek a path out of the deal.