The Trump administration is barring President-elect Biden’s transition team from meeting with Pentagon intelligence teams. This is in contrast to their access to civilian agencies, even the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The fact of this is not in doubt today, but the mystery is: why?
One part of the answer concerns who is doing this in the Pentagon. There is certainly no sign that the barrier comes from the defense intelligence agencies themselves. Those agencies stand ready and willing to brief the transition team. They have every reason to want a seamless transition in which the Biden teams pick up where their predecessors combatted foreign enemies.
The resistance in the Pentagon appears to come from a new crew installed at the White House’s direction after it cashiered Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and the Pentagon installed acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller. Also put in were chief of staff Kashyap Patel and interim undersecretary of defense intelligence Ezra Cohen-Watnick. These have played a central role in transition matters.
What these figures have in common is loyal service to Trump in the Russia and Ukraine investigations. Hence, part of their reason for hampering the transition could well be deferring access by the incoming Biden administration to the staff at the defense agencies, notably the National Security Agency, who may well be eager to pass along what they know of the Russia and Ukraine investigation.
Look occur at the background of these new top Defense officials holding back the transition information. Patel is a former Congressional aide to Republican Representative Devin Nunes. Nunes was famous for trying in early 2017 to arrange for false pro-Trump evidence to go to the House Select Committee on Intelligence, where Nunes served at the time as Chair and head of the Russia investigation.
Patel in particular was the key author of a controversial 2018 memo. This was central to the Republican narrative that FISA warrants which are carried out by the National Security Agency (and the FBI), where the transition is now being stymied. These were for several Trump campaign staffers, including Carter Page. The memo was subsequently deemed biased, but the whole matter has continued as part of the pro-Trump case about the Russian investigation.
Also, Patel had another role. President Trump referred to Patel as one of his top Ukraine policy specialists and as such wished to discuss related documents with him. And, Fiona Hill tole impeachment inquiry investigators that it seems “Patel was improperly becoming involved in Ukraine policy and was sending information to Mr. Trump.”
Cohen-Watnick was installed after Joseph Kernan resigned as his predecessor as undersecretary of defense intelligence. Cohen-Watnick had been brought into the National Security Council by Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s first National Security Advisor. Flynn recently receive Trump’s pardon for his guilty plea and conviction for false statements on the Russia matter. Cohen-Watnick does have a long record, going back to 2010, of respectable federal work for the federal government on intelligence matters. His strong loyalty to Trump is thus a comparatively recent development for him.
Cohen-Watnick allegedly passed inadvertently identified report that Trump campaign team members had been subjected to incidental surveillance by the United States intelligence community. This information went through House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes. In other words, Cohen-Watnick, like Patel, was serving Chairman Nunes and relates to the pro-Trump case about the Russia investigation.
This suggests that Patel and Cohen-Watnick Trump loyalists during the Trump Administration with a record of active support for him in the Russian investigation.
What does all this add up to? It could simply be partisanship of top defense figures installed by Trump after the termination of Defense Secretary Esper. But, also, an element of it might be action by the key pro-Trump loyalists to defer learning by the incoming Biden Administration of the actual underlying intelligence information, such as it is, relating to the pro-Trump Russia inquiry.