A career government official responsible for reviewing former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s book manuscript for classified information accused the White House on Tuesday of hijacking the process in what appeared to be a politically motivated effort to block the book's publication.
The claims contained in a scathing 18-page letter from an attorney for former NSC official Ellen Knight could upend the ongoing legal battles over Bolton’s actions in the lead-up to the release in June of his unflattering-to-the-president, tell-all tome over the strenuous objection of Trump White House officials.
Knight’s anguished and detail-rich account of the process emerged in a court filing Wednesday, just days after reports that the Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into Bolton’s actions.
Knight concluded that “a designedly apolitical process had been commandeered by political appointees for a seemingly political purpose,” her attorney Ken Wainstein said.
Knight describes sustained White House pressure — including a four-hour session with counsel Patrick Philbin and others — that she viewed as an attempt to strong-arm her into admitting mistakes they could use as a pretense to delay the release of the book, “The Room Where It Happened.”
Knight blasted as “unprecedented” the White House’s handling of the process and revealed that senior intelligence officials kept her in the dark for six weeks about a “secretive secondary re-review” conducted by a political appointee.
Knight was most unsparing toward Michael Ellis, a political appointee who, at the time of the book's review had been recently elevated to a senior intelligence role. Ellis, who had yet to be fully trained in the standards and procedures for classifying information, nevertheless undertook his own review of Bolton’s book and distorted the review process to describe classified material where none existed, she said.
Knight paints Ellis’ review as almost comically amateurish and superficial, consisting of reading through the manuscript and flagging “hundreds of passages” that might be considered classified. However, Knight explained that the more rigorous, granular review she conducts involves determining not only what might touch on sensitive subjects, but which discrete facts are classified and what information is already in the public domain through public statements from the White House or other government officials.
“DOJ attorneys showed Ms. Knight the manuscript with Mr. Ellis’s hundreds of marked passages and asked her whether it was possible that she and her team had simply ‘missed this much classified information,’” Knight’s attorney describes in the filing. “She firmly responded that that was not possible, and she proceeded to explain how Mr. Ellis’s re-review of the manuscript was fundamentally flawed.”
A spokesperson for the National Security Council didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Ellis and Philbin also didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
When the DOJ went to court in an unsuccessful bid to block publication of Bolton’s book, some — including U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth — noted that the government’s legal team lacked any first-hand statement from Knight despite her central role in the review process both for Bolton’s book and other works written by White House officials.
Knight explained in the letter that the reason the administration’s lawyers lacked a former declaration from her in the court fight was that she refused to sign one.
“Over the course of five days and a total of 18 hours of meetings, a rotating cast of Justice Department and White House attorneys tried to persuade Ms. Knight to sign a declaration they wanted to file with their lawsuit against Ambassador Bolton,” Wainstein wrote. She was unwilling to sign a statement that “glossed over the irregular aspects of the prepublication review,” he said.
In her filing, Knight indicated she had been content to remain on the sidelines amid the public spectacle of the lawsuit but changed her mind upon seeing declarations by her former superiors that she had somehow botched the review process and jeopardized national security.
Knight, a career National Archives official, also suggested that her career has been derailed by the entire episode. Though she said she had been assured that she would be offered a staff position at the National Security Council when her detail to the NSC expired in August, she was informed after her refusal to bend to White House pressure that she was being returned to her previous agency.
“Following her refusal on June 16 to sign a declaration concerning the Bolton litigation, Ms. Knight’s interaction with her leadership and NSC Legal all but ceased until June 22, when she received an automated email advising her that her detail would end in 60 days,” the letter said.
Lamberth ultimately rebuffed the government’s effort to block publication of the book, concluding that such an effort would be futile since many members of the media had review copies and some had already reported on it. But the judge delivered a brutal broadside to Bolton, suggesting he’d been reckless and perhaps even criminal in giving the go-ahead for publication without obtaining final clearance from the White House.
While Knight’s account is sharply critical of a series of White House officials, Bolton does not emerge entirely unscathed.
The letter from her attorney says Bolton worked in “good faith overall” during the review, but also says he was “gruff and demanding and expressed frustration at times during the process.” She concluded, though, that his intentions were to see the process through.
In a footnote, Knight’s attorney also mentions that she raised concerns at one point that the level of detail in Bolton’s book suggested he had access to notes that were classified presidential records and “should have been returned to the NSC.” Bolton has said he destroyed the notes, the letter observes, without elaborating on any potential legal ramifications of that move.
Knight also made clear in the letter that she was not endorsing Bolton’s unusual decision to lay bare the details of his time working for President Donald Trump less than a year after leaving the White House, but felt the former national security adviser had a “constitutional right to do so in accordance with the prepublication rules.”
Wainstein, who served as the first head of DOJ’s National Security Division, sent the letter Tuesday to the lawyers on both sides of the suit in which the government is now seeking to confiscate the proceeds from Bolton’s book. Bolton’s attorneys promptly filed it publicly in the court docket Wednesday morning.
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.