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Ex-NSC official alleges 'unprecedented' intervention by White House aides in Bolton book review
A former National Security Council (NSC) official says the White House intervened in "unprecedented" fashion in the prepublication review process of former national security adviser John Bolton's book in an effort to deem information classified and prevent the memoir's publication.
Kenneth Wainstein, a lawyer for Ellen Knight, a career federal employee and a former NSC senior director who led the prepublication review of Bolton's book, filed a letter in federal court on Wednesday detailing Knight's concerns with the actions of White House officials in the review of Bolton's memoir, "The Room Where it Happened," earlier this year. He writes that she harbors concerns about the potential politicization of the prepublication review process.
Wainstein conveys Knight's view that NSC lawyers played "an outsize role in the review process" after she informed them of her receipt of Bolton's manuscript.
For instance, NSC officials oversaw and dictated the timing of correspondence between Knight and Chuck Cooper, Bolton's attorney, according to the letter. It says that, at one point, Michael Ellis, then the NSC deputy legal adviser, instructed Knight to "temporarily withhold any response" to Bolton's attorney when he asked that a section of the book on Ukraine be prioritized so that it could become public during President Trump's impeachment trial.
"These interactions with NSC Legal in the course of a prepublication review were unprecedented in her experience. She had never previously been asked to take the above described measures, and she has never heard that predecessors in her position ever received such instructions in the course of their prepublication reviews," Wainstein writes.
The letter, which stretches 18 pages, describes the prepublication review process that took place when Bolton's more than 500-page manuscript was submitted to the NSC for review at the end of December.
It says that Knight and her staff worked closely with Bolton, who served as Trump's third national security adviser, to revise his manuscript and eventually determined that the book did not contain classified information in April.
But, according to Knight's account, political appointees at NSC intervened, delaying the issuance of a clearance letter to Bolton and ultimately challenging her assessment of the book's contents. Ellis had conducted his own review of the book, which Knight learned of in the weeks after she informed NSC lawyers that her review was completed. Knight says Ellis undertook a "flawed approach" because he conflated a classification review with a prepublication review.
The letter also claims that White House attorneys sought to persuade Knight to sign a declaration in the administration's eventual lawsuit against Bolton about her role in the review process that contended there was a disagreement between experts in the process and suggested her team's work was "subpar." She refused to sign the declaration.
NSC spokesman John Ullyot said in a statement later Wednesday that officials are reviewing Wainstein's letter but "disagree strongly with Ms. Knight's assertion that additional review of the Bolton manuscript was somehow politically motivated." Ullyot said that multiple officials disagreed with Knight's conclusion that the manuscript did not contain classified information.
Ullyot pointed to statements from top national security officials, including NSA Director Paul Nakasone, who wrote in a signed affidavit that disclosure of classified information in the manuscript "could be expected to result in exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States."
"The National Security Council acted to protect exceptionally sensitive classified information that Ms. Knight simply missed," Ullyot said. "We will continue to protect our country from foreign adversaries and act in the best interest of the national security."
The letter, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., represents the latest development in the ongoing saga involving Bolton's book.
The Trump administration in June filed a lawsuit seeking to block the book's publication, alleging that it contains classified information and could compromise national security if published. The attempt to block the book's publication was unsuccessful, and Bolton's memoir was published in the weeks following. The lawsuit, however, is ongoing, and a hearing is scheduled in the case on Thursday.
Last week, it was revealed that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into whether Bolton illegally disclosed classified information in his memoir.
Knight was working at the NSC on a two-year detail assignment from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Wainstein's letter suggests that she may have been retaliated against for her refusal to join the administration's effort to block the publication of Bolton's memoir. It states that she had initially been given assurances that she would be kept on at NSC in a direct-hire position following the conclusion of her detail, but was informed this summer that there was not a path forward for her at the NSC. She has since returned to NARA.
--Updated at 5:55 p.m.