The Trump administration sued former White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton on Tuesday to block the release of his new book next week, saying he never completed a required government review to scrub classified information.
The breach-of-contract suit filed by the Justice Department in federal court says the action seeks to stop Mr. Bolton “from compromising national security.” It says that in his former post in the White House, Mr. Bolton had “a high-level role in which he regularly came into possession of some of the most sensitive classified information that exists in the U.S. government.”
Although Mr. Bolton did remove some classified information from the manuscript, the National Security Council has determined that some secrets remain in his book, up to several paragraphs in length.
“In fact, the NSC has determined that information in the manuscript is classified at the Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret levels,” the lawsuit states.
“Accordingly, the publication and release of ‘The Room Where it Happened’ would cause irreparable harm, because the disclosure of instances of classified information in the manuscript reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage, or exceptionally grave damage, to the national security of the United States.”
The complaint comes a week before the scheduled June 23 release of the book by Simon & Schuster. Mr. Bolton, who was dismissed by President Trump in September 2019 after a series of foreign-policy disagreements, reportedly was paid $2 million for the tell-all manuscript.
Mr. Trump said this week that he hopes Mr. Bolton is found criminally liable for disclosing classified information. In meetings, Mr. Bolton was known as a fanatical note-taker, a habit that displeases the president.
The Justice Department’s lawsuit is a civil action that seeks to force him to comply with the government review of his book that he agreed to when he took the job.
“The United States is not seeking to censor any legitimate aspect of defendant’s manuscript; it merely seeks an order requiring defendant to complete the prepublication review process and to take all steps necessary to ensure that only a manuscript that has been officially authorized through that process — and is thus free of classified information — is disseminated publicly,” the lawsuit states.
Mr. Bolton’s lawyer had no immediate comment, but publisher Simon & Schuster called the lawsuit in a Tuesday evening statement “nothing more than the latest in a long running series of efforts by the administration to quash publication of a book it deems unflattering to the president.”
The company “fully supports [Mr. Bolton’s] First Amendment right” to tell his story, it said.
Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s speech, privacy and technology project, said the government’s complaint is “doomed to fail.”
“A half-century ago the Supreme Court rejected a similar attempt by the Nixon administration to block the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and since then it has been firmly established that prior restraints on publication are unconstitutional and un-American,” Mr. Wizner said. “As usual, the government’s threats have nothing to do with safeguarding national security, and everything to do with avoiding scandal and embarrassment.”
The complaint says Mr. Bolton voluntarily signed a standard non-disclosure agreement when he was appointed national security adviser in April 2018. The agreement was “a condition of his appointment and to permit him access to classified information,” the lawsuit says.
After leaving the White House, Mr. Bolton submitted his 500-page manuscript to the NSC for the required prepublication review on Dec. 30, 2019. On Jan. 23, Ellen Knight, the NSC’s senior director for Records Access and Information Security Management, told Mr. Bolton’s lawyer, Chuck Cooper, that the manuscript contained “significant amounts” of classified material, including some considered “top-secret.”
The two sides began a back-and-forth process, in which Mr. Bolton agreed to some of the government’s proposed edits. At one point in March, Ms. Knight submitted to Mr. Bolton “17 single-spaced pages noting specific passages and changes,” the lawsuit states. But the government’s complaint says that Mr. Bolton “apparently became dissatisfied at the pace of NSC’s review.”
“Rather than wait for the process to conclude, defendant decided to take matters into his own hands,” the lawsuit states. “On June 7, 2020, without defendant giving any prior notice to the NSC, press reports revealed that defendant and his publisher had resolved to release the book on June 23, without completing the pre-publication review process.”
Leaks to The New York Times and The Washington Post about the book’s pending publication further heightened interest in sales, the complaint states.
Ms. Knight completed her review on April 27 and “was of the judgment” that the manuscript no longer contained classified material. But on May 2, Michael Ellis, the NSC’s senior director for intelligence, began an additional review of the manuscript.
“He is in a position to know intelligence information and internal foreign policy deliberations and developments that others of the NSC staff do not know,” the government said. “For the same reasons, he has a broader base of knowledge to identify and determine information that is classified that others may not be able to identify and determine as classified.”
During Mr. Ellis’ review, the NSC learned through press reports that Mr. Bolton intended to proceed with publication and release of the book.
The complaint also seeks for the court to impose “a constructive trust for the benefit of the United States over, and require an accounting of, all monies, gains, profits, royalties, and other advantages that defendant and his agents, assignees, or others acting on his behalf have derived, or will derive, from the publication, sale, serialization, or republication in any form, including any movie rights or other reproduction rights.”