WASHINGTON – The White House fight with former national security adviser John Bolton is the latest chapter in a lengthy history of Washington book battles, yet it will likely define future cases between the U.S. government and former employees determined to write tell-alls.
The government asked a federal court for a temporary restraining order to prevent the release of the book, claiming it contains classified material. But the book, set to be released Tuesday, is already sitting in warehouses. And media outlets, including The Associated Press, have obtained advance copies and published stories on the book.
The 577-page book paints an unvarnished portrait of Trump and his administration. Bolton writes that Trump “pleaded” with China’s Xi Jinping during a 2019 summit to help his reelection prospects and that political calculations drove Trump's foreign policy.
Trump on Thursday called the book a “compilation of lies and made up stories” intended to make him look bad. He tweeted that Bolton was just trying to get even for being fired “like the sick puppy he is!”
The two sides were facing off Friday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Washington, adding Bolton's name to a long list of authors who have clashed with the government over publishing sensitive material.
The government says Bolton violated a nondisclosure agreement in which he promised to submit any book he might write to the administration for a prepublication review to ensure government secrets aren't disclosed.
After working for months with the White House to edit, rewrite or remove sensitive information, Bolton's lawyer says his client received a verbal clearance from classification expert Ellen Knight at the National Security Council. But he never got a formal clearance letter, and the Trump administration contends that the book, titled “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir," still contains sensitive material.
The case “has the makings of being the defining litigation for nondisclosure agreements for decades,” said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University who has handled cases involving classified materials for decades. “Both sides have now dug in.”
The White House has tried to use the firestorm sparked by the book to its advantage, as it looks to animate the president’s loyal base of supporters against the media and Democrats. White House aides have circulated quotes from both groups critical of Bolton in an effort to highlight what they view as a sudden embrace of the departed aide now that he’s turned critical of Trump.
The White House insists that classified material remains in the Bolton book even though he worked on revisions for months with Knight. The government said in its court filing that after Knight finished her review, the White House ordered a second review to be done by Michael Ellis, a political appointee who has been senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council since March and previously was the NSC’s deputy legal adviser.
“The fact that the White House wanted multiple, sequential reviews is way out of the ordinary and it suggests the obvious point that there is a political motivation at work,” said Steven Aftergood, a classification expert at the Federation of American Scientists.
Ellis began his review of the Bolton book on May 2 at the behest of national security adviser Robert O’Brien. The lawsuit said Ellis has had “original classification authority” since 2017, allowing him to make decisions to classify material.
A classification expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the administration, disputed that. The expert said it is highly irregular for a political appointee like Ellis to be involved in the prepublication process. The expert said Ellis has never done a prepublication review of a book and only received his initial “original classification authority” training, which is required every year, in early June, a month after he was asked to review Bolton’s book.
In an amended filing on Friday, the government acknowledged that Ellis did not receive his “original classification authority” training until June 10, after he had already reviewed Bolton’s book. The government said Ellis reviewed the book again after his training, but did not alter any of his decisions that the book still contained classified material.
Classification battles have popped up regularly over the years.
In 2010, the Defense Department negotiated to buy and destroy all 10,000 copies of the book “Operation Dark Heart,” a story about the Afghan war by Anthony Shaffer, a former defense intelligence officer. It was initially cleared for publication by Army reviewers, but when spy agency reviewers took a look, they claimed it included classified information that could damage national security.
Matt Bissonnette, who wrote “No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden,” was ordered to forfeit an estimated $6.8 million to the federal government in 2016 when he skipped a prepublication review by the Pentagon. The Defense Department claimed the book contained classified information. The publisher denied it did.
In 2008, a former undercover CIA officer writing under the pen name Ishmael Jones published “The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture,” which recounted his work on weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. In 2011, a federal judge ruled that he had broken the law by not going through the CIA’s prepublication review process, which Jones claimed the agency had stalled.
A case that went all the way to the Supreme Court dealt with a book by Frank Snepp, who signed a nondisclosure agreement as part of working at the CIA and then published a book about the agency’s activities in South Vietnam. He didn't get clearance from the CIA. A lower court denied Snepp royalties from the book, and the Supreme Court upheld that ruling in 1980.
The Justice Department filed a similar action over former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s book, seeking to collect all the proceeds because it didn’t undergo a prepublication review. Under the law, the executive branch has the sole discretion to determine what material is classified.
Associated Press writers Hillel Italie in New York and Michael Balsamo and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.