In a bombshell letter filed with the court this week, attorneys for the National Security Council official who led the prepublication review of former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s bestselling memoir The Room Where It Happened detail a troubling chain of events appearing to bolster Bolton’s claim that political appointees in the Trump administration improperly hijacked the review process for political purposes.
In a 19-page letter, attorneys for Ellen Knight, former senior director for records access and information security management at the NSC, confirm her position that the book was in fact cleared of classified information after an intensive process—only to be blocked by political appointees, who later unsuccessfully pressured Knight to change her story and eventually removed her from her post.
“As a career professional in the field of classified information management, Ms. Knight is very concerned about the politicization—or even the perceived politicization—of the prepublication review process,” attorneys for Knight wrote in explaining why the official is putting her story on the record. “Once authors start perceiving that manuscripts are being reviewed for political considerations, they will lose confidence in the integrity of the process and find ways to publish or release their works without submitting them for review. This could result in unchecked disclosures of sensitive information and the potential for serious damage to our national security.”
The letter comes at a crucial juncture in the legal actions against Bolton, with judge Royce Lamberth poised to rule on the Department of Justice’s bid for summary judgment in the civil case against Bolton. A win for the DoJ would pave the way for the government to seize Bolton’s royalties for the book. Bolton, meanwhile, has asked the court to dismiss the case against him and, failing that, has asked the court to order discovery, alleging the government acted in bad faith in withholding his clearance to publish the book. The DoJ is said to also be investigating criminal charges against Bolton.
In her filing, Knight details a lengthy, iterative process that began with Bolton's submission of the manuscript on December 30, 2019. Despite Bolton’s stated belief at the time that his book contained no classified information, Knight says that the draft manuscript did in fact contain "voluminous amounts of classified information” and required “significant effort to put it into publishable shape.”
Knight called the process the “most intensive prepublication review process in recent memory at the NSC,” in which she provided Bolton “with extensive guidance and best practices for writing around classified information,” held four in-person meetings with Bolton lasting a total of 14 hours, and spoke with him in 10 telephone conversations, two of which were hours long. Knight also held three lengthy telephone calls with Bolton’s attorney, Charles Cooper, and had “extensive email correspondence with the author, his attorney, and his assistant throughout this process.”
Ultimately, Knight confirms, her office determined in April that “all classification concerns had been addressed and that publication of the manuscript, as heavily revised, would disclose no information that would cause harm to our national security.” That conclusion, attorneys for Knight add, was confirmed by the final read-through of the manuscript by the acting director for access management at the agency.
Among the most eye-opening assertions in the letter is that Knight resisted pressure by political appointees in the Trump White House to reconsider her review and effectively sign off on the White House's own "flawed" review.
In the letter, Knight says that administration officials pressured her to "admit that she and her team had missed something or made a mistake," or to at least concede that key determinations could be explained as a difference of opinion. "Ms. Knight responded that this was not a difference of opinion, but was rather a difference between a prepublication review process conducted with the goal of producing a publishable manuscript and a classification review process conducted with the goal of blocking publication," the letter states.
Further, over the course of five days and a total of 18 hours of meetings, "a rotating cast of Justice Department and White House attorneys" unsuccessfully tried to persuade Knight to sign a declaration they could use in their case against Bolton.
"Knight asked the attorneys how it could be appropriate that a designedly apolitical process had been commandeered by political appointees for a seemingly political purpose. She asked them to explain why they were so insistent on pursuing litigation rather than resolving the potential national security issues through engagement with Ambassador Bolton and her team. The attorneys had no answer for her challenges, aside from a rote recitation of the government’s legal position that Ambassador Bolton had violated his contractual obligations by failing to wait for written clearance."
Shortly after refusing to sign a declaration, Knight says her interactions with leadership and the NSC's legal department "all but ceased" until June 22. That day, she received an automated email, informing her "that her detail would end in 60 days."
In a June 20 decision denying the DOJ's emergency application to block publication of Bolton’s book, judge Lamberth rebuked Bolton for opting out of the review process, concluding that his book “likely jeopardized national security by disclosing classified information in violation of his nondisclosure agreement obligations.” His remarks, however, were based on initial filings and were made before seeing the book, and without a declaration from Knight.