First Amendment

Judge refuses to stop publication of Bolton book but warns of consequences

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John Bolton Wikimedia Commons

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton in 2017. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., refused Saturday to block the publication of a tell-all book by former National Security Adviser John Bolton while warning of possible consequences.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth refused to issue an injunction, even as he declared that Bolton’s decision to authorize the publication “raises grave national security concerns.” Lamberth’s June 20 opinion is here.

Bolton’s book is The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir. The U.S. government had contended that the book is “rife with classified information” that would breach a nondisclosure agreement that Bolton signed as a condition of gaining access to that information.

Lamberth said the government was not able to show an irreparable injury entitling it to an injunction because more than 200,000 copies of the book have already shipped. The “horse is already out of the barn,” Lamberth had remarked at the injunction hearing.

The press is already reporting on the book’s contents. According to the press reports, Bolton’s book said President Donald Trump sought favors or approval from many authoritarian leaders.

“By the looks of it,” Lamberth wrote, “the horse is not just out of the barn—it is out of the country.”

Lamberth said he reviewed classified declarations by the government, and he is persuaded that Bolton “likely jeopardized national security by disclosing classified information in violation of his nondisclosure agreement obligations.”

“Defendant Bolton has gambled with the national security of the United States,” Lamberth wrote. “He has exposed his country to harm and himself to civil (and potentially criminal) liability. But these facts do not control the motion before the court. The government has failed to establish that an injunction will prevent irreparable harm.”

Lamberth said Bolton could have sued the government over his dissatisfaction with the review process, rather than opt out of it before the conclusion.

“Unilateral fast-tracking carried the benefit of publicity and sales and the cost of substantial risk exposure,” Lamberth said.

“This was Bolton’s bet: If he is right and the book does not contain classified information, he keeps the upside mentioned above; but if he is wrong, he stands to lose his profits from the book deal, exposes himself to criminal liability, and imperils national security. Bolton was wrong.”

Bolton had signed a nondisclosure agreement in which he agreed to never divulge classified information and, when unsure of the classified nature of information, to get government authorization for disclosure, according to Lamberth’s opinion. Violation of the agreement results in assigning to the government any money received as a result of disclosure.

Bolton submitted a draft manuscript to the government for review in December 2019 and worked to incorporate edits that he received from Ellen Knight, the senior director for records access and information security management at the National Security Council.

Knight told Bolton on April 27 that she no longer thought the manuscript contained classified material. Bolton says Knight discussed the possibility that he would get final written authorization that afternoon. The authorization never came, and Knight told Bolton that the review process was ongoing.

On June 8, Bolton was informed by deputy White House counsel John Eisenberg that the manuscript still contained classified information. By that time, Bolton had already sent the final manuscript to the publisher for printing and shipping.

“Many Americans are unable to renew their passports within four months, but Bolton complains that reviewing hundreds of pages of a national security adviser’s tell-all deserves a swifter timetable,” Lamberth said.

“Access to sensitive intelligence is rarely consolidated in individuals, and it comes as no surprise to the court that the government requested several iterations of review headed by multiple officers. But what is reasonable to the court was intolerable to Bolton, and he proceeded to publication without so much as an email notifying the government,” he added.

The Washington Post and the New York Times had coverage of Lamberth’s opinion.

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