McMaster ousts second, senior official on National Security Council

US National Security Advisor HR McMaster (right) speaks at a press briefing with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin at the White House in Washington, DC, on July 31, 2017.
US National Security Advisor HR McMaster (right) speaks at a press briefing with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin at the White House in Washington, DC, on July 31, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST, BLOOMBERG) - The White House said a National Security Council staff member caught up in a controversy over the release of intelligence material to a member of Congress is leaving his job, a signal that National Security Adviser HR McMaster is gaining firmer authority following the installation of John Kelly as the president's new chief of staff.

Ezra Cohen-Watnick, 31, who led the NSC's Intelligence directorate, was an ally and former Defence Intelligence Agency colleague of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned after he misled administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the US.

In March, McMaster told him that he was being moved to another position. But Cohen-Watnick, who worked on the Trump transition team and is close to Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, appealed to Kushner and Stephen Bannon, Trump's chief White House strategist. Bannon and Kushner spoke with Trump, and Cohen-Watnick was kept in place.

That McMaster was now able to remove Cohen-Watnick following Kelly's swearing-in on Monday may be a sign that McMaster - like Kelly, a former general - is being given more power to shape the NSC.

"To me, this was simply about chain of command," said Michael Hayden, the former director of CIA and of the National Security Agency. "This is the way things are done in John Kelly's universe. People with responsibility get commensurate authority. McMaster wanted him out."

It was unclear whether Cohen-Watnick would remain in some capacity. A statement released by the White House said McMaster "is confident that Ezra will make many further significant contributions to national security in another position in the administration".

Cohen-Watnick gained notoriety in Washington after it was reported that he had shown House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes classified documents that allegedly revealed members of the Obama administration had sought the identities of Trump campaign officials and associates inadvertently caught on government intercepts, known as "unmasking".

Nunes then revealed that information publicly in an attempt to bolster Trump's unsubstantiated allegation that President Barack Obama had wiretapped him.

The news of Cohen-Watnick's departure came shortly after The Atlantic magazine reported that Rich Higgins, a former Pentagon official who served in the NSC's strategic planning office, was dismissed last month.

The magazine reported that the departure of Higgins was probably motivated by a memo in which he outlined perceived threats to Trump's presidency. In the memo, Huggins reportedly argued that allegations over Russian interference in the election were a plot to sabotage the president's agenda, and that a cabal of globalists, bankers, the "deep state" and Islamists were conspiring to derail his agenda.

Cohen-Watnick's dismissal also follows the removal last week of retired Army Colonel Derek Harvey, an influential voice on Iran, Syria and counterterrorism policy.

Harvey and Cohen-Watnick were known in the White House for their hawkish views on Iran and were regular allies in White House debates on counterterrorism, Middle East policy and Iran policy, US officials said. Cohen-Watnick and Harvey were hired by McMaster's ousted predecessor, Michael Flynn.

McMaster initially sought to remove Cohen-Watnick after CIA Director Mike Pompeo told him that some intelligence officials did not think he was up to the job, said US officials. The intelligence director is the White House's primary point of contact with the intelligence community and is a filter for information that goes to the president.