Ezra Cohen-Watnick

Ezra Asa Cohen-Watnick (born May 18, 1986)[1] served as Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence during the Trump Administration. He previously served as the Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, national security adviser to the United States Attorney General and as a former Senior Director for Intelligence Programs for the United States National Security Council (NSC).[2]

Ezra Cohen-Watnick
Ezra Cohen 200801-D-ZZ999-030.jpg
Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence
In office
November 10, 2020 – January 20, 2021
PresidentDonald Trump
Preceded byJoseph D. Kernan
Succeeded byDavid M. Taylor (Acting)
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict
In office
August 10, 2020 – November 10, 2020
PresidentDonald Trump
Preceded byChristopher C. Miller (Acting)
Succeeded byJoseph Tonon (Acting)
Personal details
Ezra Asa Cohen-Watnick

(1986-05-18) May 18, 1986 (age 34)
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Rebecca Miller
EducationUniversity of Pennsylvania (BA)

Early life and careerEdit

Cohen-Watnick gained a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008 before taking a position at the Office of Naval Intelligence after graduation.[3][4] Before joining the White House, Cohen-Watnick worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), beginning in 2010, where he served in Miami, Haiti, Virginia and Afghanistan.[5] Cohen-Watnick was accepted into the training program for the Defense Clandestine Service.[6]

Cohen-Watnick underwent training at Camp Peary (commonly known as "The Farm"), where he was trained by the Central Intelligence Agency.[5] He was assigned to Afghanistan, with a GS-13 rank.[5][6] He was temporarily assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency Headquarters in 2014.[5] Cohen-Watnick left the DIA for the National Security Council on January 20, 2017.[5]

Tenure on the National Security CouncilEdit

Cohen-Watnick was brought into the United States National Security Council by Michael T. Flynn, the former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and President Donald Trump's first National Security Advisor. He was named the NSC's Senior Director for Intelligence Programs.[7] This directorship was intermittently held by detailed CIA officers. Like Cohen-Watnick, the immediate preceding Senior Director from the Obama Administration was a political appointee.[8][9] Some viewed Cohen-Watnick's appointment as a sign of Trump's mistrust of the CIA.[10]

Following Flynn's resignation in February 2017, the new National Security Advisor, H. R. McMaster, attempted to remove Cohen-Watnick, but he was overruled by Trump.[5] McMaster attempted to replace Cohen-Watnick with veteran CIA official Linda Weissgold.[11]

It is alleged that Cohen-Watnick inadvertently identified reports suggesting that members of Trump's campaign team had been subjected to incidental surveillance by the United States intelligence community, as part of an unrelated review of privacy procedures.[12][13] This information was passed on to Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes by Assistant White House Counsel Michael Ellis.[14][12]

It has been reported that Cohen-Watnick has advocated using the American intelligence community to overthrow the current Iranian government.[5][15]

The White House announced Cohen-Watnick's dismissal on August 2, 2017, following policy disagreements with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster over Afghanistan, Iran, and Intelligence Oversight.[16][17][18] According to The Washington Post, Cohen-Watnick resigned following a power shift under McMaster.[19] Upon Cohen-Watnick's departure, the White House commented that "General McMaster appreciates the good work accomplished in the NSC's Intelligence directorate under Ezra Cohen's leadership... General McMaster is confident that Ezra will make many further significant contributions to national security in another position in the administration."[20]

In late September 2017, Cohen-Watnick was reportedly succeeded by Michael Barry.[21]

Support for Counterintelligence InitiativesEdit

In May 2017, Cohen-Watnick and the FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence reportedly advocated for strong law enforcement actions against Chinese government officials conducting operations targeting Chinese dissidents and asylum seekers inside the United States, against objections from Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton. Cohen-Watnick reportedly charged Thornton with "improperly hindering law-enforcement efforts to address China’s repeated violations of U.S. sovereignty and law."[22]

On December 25, 2017, The Washington Post reported that in the weeks before Trump's inauguration, Brett Holmgren, Cohen-Watnick's predecessor in the Obama White House, briefed Cohen-Watnick on the actions the Obama Administration had taken to counter Russian active measures. Once in the job, Cohen-Watnick sent out memos identifying counterintelligence threats, including Russia's, as his top priority, officials said. He convened regular meetings in the White House Situation Room at which he pressed counterintelligence officials in other government agencies, including the CIA, to finalize plans for Russia, including those left behind by the Obama team, according to officials in attendance. By spring, national security adviser H. R. McMaster, senior White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill and Cohen-Watnick began advocating measures to counter Russian disinformation using covert influence and cyber-operations, according to officials.[23]

Justice DepartmentEdit

In April 2018, he rejoined the Trump administration in the Department of Justice, advising Attorney General Sessions on counterterrorism and counterintelligence.[24]

Defense DepartmentEdit

In May 2020, Cohen-Watnick was appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counternarcotics and Global Threats.[25][26] By September 2020, he had been promoted to acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict.[27][28] On November 10, 2020, President Trump relieved a number of senior defense officials including Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Joseph Kernen resigned in anticipation of the shakeup.[29] Trump appointed Cohen-Watnick to fill the role as Acting Undersecretary[30] with principal deputy Joseph Tonon assuming the day-to-day duties of the role of ASD SO/LIC.[31]

In December 2020, he was appointed by Trump to chair the Public Interest Declassification Board.[32]

Personal lifeEdit

Cohen-Watnick is a member of the Union League of Philadelphia, a Republican-leaning Patriotic Society.[33] He married Rebecca Miller in November 2016, in a Jewish ceremony.[6][34][35]

External linksEdit


  1. ^ "Ezra Asa Cohen- Watnick". VoterRecords.com. Retrieved March 30, 2017.
  2. ^ "Ezra Cohen > U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE > Biography". www.defense.gov. Retrieved October 31, 2020.
  3. ^ "2008 Commencement Program" (PDF). University of Pennsylvania University Archives. p. 21. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 26, 2010. Retrieved March 30, 2017. Bachelor of Arts [...] Ezra A. Cohen-Watnick
  4. ^ "Office of Naval Intelligence | Penn in Washington". University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences. The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. Archived from the original on April 6, 2017. Retrieved April 6, 2017. Office of Naval Intelligence: S'08 Burr, Kyle; Fleming; Kate; Mendel, Jordan; Stewart, Jessica; Tavana, Daniel; S'07 Cohen, Ezra; Hsu, Kimberly
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Gray, Rosie (July 23, 2017). "The Man McMaster Couldn't Fire". The Atlantic. Archived from the original on July 24, 2017.
  6. ^ a b c Stein, Jeff (April 13, 2017). "Cohen-Watnick: Inside the Rise of Trump's Invisible Man in the White House". Newsweek. Archived from the original on April 21, 2017.
  7. ^ Warren, Michael. "McMaster Interviewed CIA Operative to Replace Trump NSC Official". The Weekly Standard. The current NSC official is Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a 30-year-old former intelligence operations officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency who was brought into the Trump White House by the former DIA director, Mike Flynn. Flynn resigned as national security advisor last month. Like Flynn, Cohen-Watnick has been critical of the CIA's perceived politicization during the Obama administration.
  8. ^ "Brett Holmgren". trumanproject.org. Retrieved May 29, 2017.
  9. ^ "Donilon out, Rice in; POGO releases draft IG report on Panetta, ZD30; Well, that went well: chiefs exasperate senators during sexual assault hearing; Brett Holmgren is a TSA for Ash; PowerPoints gone wild; And a bit more". Foreign Policy . Retrieved May 29, 2017.
  10. ^ Moran, Christopher R.; Aldrich, Richard J. (April 24, 2017). "Trump and the CIA". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved April 24, 2017.(subscription required)
  11. ^ "McMaster Interviewed CIA Operative to Replace Trump NSC Official". The Weekly Standard. March 16, 2017. Retrieved May 29, 2017.
  12. ^ a b Miller, Greg; DeYoung, Karen (March 30, 2017). "Three White House officials tied to files shared with House intelligence chairman". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on March 31, 2017.
  13. ^ "Obama aide denies using intel to spy on Trump advisers". AP News. Associated Press. April 4, 2017. Retrieved May 29, 2017.
  14. ^ "Trump removes Bannon from National Security Council". AP News. Associated Press. April 5, 2017. Retrieved February 13, 2018.
  15. ^ Rosenberg, Matthew; Goldman, Adam (June 2, 2017). "C.I.A. Names New Iran Chief in a Sign of Trump's Hard Line". The New York Times. Archived from the original on June 2, 2017. And Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the council’s senior director for intelligence — the main White House liaison to intelligence agencies — has told other administration officials that he wants to use American spies to help oust the Iranian government, according to multiple defense and intelligence officials.
  16. ^ Groll, Elias; McLaughlin, Jenna (August 2, 2017). "Top Intelligence Official on National Security Council Is Out". Foreign Policy.
  17. ^ "H.R. McMaster Cleans House at the National Security Council". The Atlantic. August 2, 2017.
  18. ^ "Flynn holdover Cohen-Watnick removed from Nat'l Security Council". United Press International. August 3, 2017.
  19. ^ Bump, Philip (February 8, 2018). "Analysis | Thirty-seven administration officials who've resigned or been fired under Trump". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved February 13, 2018.
  20. ^ "Trump loyalist Ezra Cohen-Watnick fired from NSC, sources say". Conservative Review. August 2, 2017.
  21. ^ "CIA Officer Joins NSC Staff As Agency Vows To Be More "Vicious"". BuzzFeed. Retrieved January 3, 2018.
  22. ^ O’Keeffe, Kate; Viswanatha, Aruna; Podkul, Cezary (October 23, 2017). "China's Pursuit of Fugitive Businessman Guo Wengui Kicks Off Manhattan Caper Worthy of Spy Thriller". The Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved December 17, 2017.
  23. ^ Entous, Adam; Nakashima, Ellen; Jaffe, Greg (December 25, 2017). "Kremlin trolls burned across the Internet as Washington debated options". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved January 3, 2018.
  24. ^ Goldman, Adam (April 11, 2018). "Trump National Security Aide Ousted From White House Re-emerges at Justice Dept". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 11, 2018.
  25. ^ Cooper, Helene (May 11, 2020). "Aide Ousted From White House Reappears Again in Administration Job". The New York Times.
  26. ^ Jacobs, Jennifer; Capaccio, Anthony (May 11, 2020). "Ex-Trump Security Aide Who Left in Controversy Rejoins Pentagon". Bloomberg. Retrieved May 13, 2020.
  27. ^ "Agenda". National Defense Industrial Association. Archived from the original on October 2, 2020. Retrieved October 1, 2020.
  28. ^ McLeary, Paul [@paulmcleary] (September 26, 2020). "Remember Ezra Cohen-Watnick? He landed as DoD's acting (unconfirmed) secretary for Special Operations, and he's speaking at a Special Ops conference Friday. ndia.org/events/2020/10/2/2020-virtual-solic/agenda" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  29. ^ Macias, Amanda (November 10, 2020). "Trump loyalists elevated to powerful roles at the Pentagon after firing of Defense Secretary Esper". CNBC. Retrieved November 11, 2020.
  30. ^ Mehta, Aaron (November 10, 2020). "Top policy, intelligence civilians resign amid Pentagon shakeup". Defense News. Retrieved November 11, 2020.
  31. ^ Altman, Meghann Myers, Howard (November 19, 2020). "Pentagon shakeup means more civilian oversight for special operations". Military Times. Retrieved November 30, 2020.
  32. ^ Niedzwiadek, Nick (December 22, 2020). "Trump nominates Hope Hicks, Ric Grenell to government posts". Politico. Trump also tapped Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the acting undersecretary of Defense for intelligence and security, to chair the Public Interest Declassification Board.
  33. ^ "Banner" (PDF). Union League of Philadelphia. June 2012. p. 15. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 30, 2017. Ezra A. Cohen-Watnick
  34. ^ "Report: Trump overrules national security adviser in order to keep NSC aide Cohen-Watnick". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. March 15, 2017. Archived from the original on March 30, 2017. Retrieved March 30, 2017. Cohen-Watnick celebrated his engagement to Rebecca Miller in November at Ohr Kodesh Congregation, a Conservative synagogue outside Washington, D.C., according to a synagogue newsletter.
  35. ^ Guttman, Nathan (March 30, 2017). "Meet Ezra Cohen-Watnick, The Secret Source At The Center Of Trump Russia Probe". The Forward. Archived from the original on March 30, 2017. Cohen-Watnick grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside the nation’s capital and attended the nearby Conservative synagogue Ohr Kodesh. Last November he celebrated his engagement to Rebecca Miller at the synagogue.