The Bolton Book Battle

Published: Jun 19, 2020

by the National Security Archive

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Trump Cites National Security Secrets to Block
Bolton’s Book – Don’t Believe It

National Security Archive Posts Documents Showing
Government Secrecy Claims Often Exaggerated in Prepublication Reviews

From Bolton in 2020 to Retired CIA Operative Kermit
Roosevelt in the 1970s, Prepublication Review Has Plagued Memoirs of Former

Washington, D.C., June 19, 2020 – As President Trump
escalates attempts to quash publication of former National Security Adviser
John Bolton’s book, The Room Where it Happened, on the grounds that it
still “contains classified information,”  the National
Security Archive today posted documentation on previous cases of
“prepublication review” dating back to the 1970s that cast doubt on the
administration’s blanket secrecy claims. The legal battle over Bolton’s memoir
underscores long-standing complaints from prominent former White House,
National Security Council, and CIA officials about the prepublication review
process – that it has imposed censorship of non-classified information under
the guise of protecting national security.

Bolton has been deeply controversial for years because
of his extreme views on U.S. foreign policy and in recent months critics have
rebuked him for seeking to profit from his memoir.  But the government’s
allegations of multiple secrecy violations in a book by a former official raise
issues that transcend politics and personalities, carrying implications far
beyond this unusually high-profile case.

More than three decades ago, a former director of the
CIA pointed up the potential problems with prepublication assessments by his
own agency.  “The reviews as conducted by the CIA,” Adm. Stansfield
Turner, who served as director of the agency during the Carter administration,
testified before a House Subcommittee in 1988, “are subject to abuse and should
be placed under some outside regulation.” The CIA’s vetting of his own book, Secrecy
and Democracy
, Turner informed Congress, was “a painful and costly process
for me.”

Despite a Department of Justice petition for an
injunction against publication filed in court this week, Bolton’s book has
already been distributed to media outlets such as the New York Times, Wall
Street Journal
and Washington Post and is scheduled to go on sale on
June 23. The book has already generated global headlines for its revelation
that President Trump explicitly asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to assist
his bid for re-election in November 2020 by increasing China’s purchases of
agricultural goods in the farm states.

“I would print Trump’s exact words but the
government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise,” Bolton
writes in his book about the episode, citing an example of deletions in the
name of national security the government has already imposed on his manuscript.

“I will consider every conversation with me as
president highly classified,” President Trump stated in threatening Bolton with
criminal charges if the book is published — a claim that National Security
Archive senior analyst Peter Kornbluh refuted as “false.” “Even the
commander-in-chief cannot classify everything,” Kornbluh said. “If there is
classified information still in the book,” the New York Times reported
in a synopsis of Bolton’s memoir, “it is hard to figure out what it might be.”

Between January and April 2020, the National Security
Council’s Office of Records and Access Management conducted a formal
prepublication vetting of Bolton’s book; the director of the office, Ellen
Knight, provided Bolton with 17 single-spaced pages of references to passages
deemed to be classified information, according to Bolton’s lawyer, Charles
Cooper. “Mr. Bolton and Ms. Knight spent almost four months going through the
nearly 500-page manuscript four times, often line by line,” Cooper has written.
Knight finished her review by April 27, and verified that she “was of the judgment that
the manuscript draft did not contain classified information.”

But high-level Trump administration political
appointees, Attorney General William Barr among them, now claim that the
prepublication review process has not yet concluded. The delay, according to
Cooper, “is a transparent attempt to use national security as a pretext to
censor Mr. Bolton, in violation of his constitutional right to speak on matters
of the utmost public import.”

“Since U.S. government agencies began submitting the
memoirs of former officials to prepublication review,” according to Archive
analyst Kornbluh, “the process has often become the go-to mechanism to censor
embarrassing or illegal operations, rather than to protect legitimate secrets
of state.”

Indeed, “PPR,” as prepublication review is referred to
in internal records, has been controversial since the late 1970s when the CIA
impeded the publication of retired agent Kermit Roosevelt’s memoir of the
agency’s covert operations to overthrow the Iranian government in 1953 and
install the Shah.  A milestone in the process was a 1983 Reagan National
Security Decision Directive 84, Safeguarding
National Security Information
, that mandated “all
intelligence-agency employees with access to highly sensitive information
(specifically, ‘sensitive compartmented information’ or ‘SCI’) to sign a
nondisclosure agreement requiring prepublication review of their manuscripts.”

The Reagan directive, which would have effectively applied CIA
across the government, was suspended in 1984 after
Congress blocked implementation over concerns that the nondisclosure agreement
constituted a lifetime censorship oath. But federal agencies continued
developing and enforcing their own prepublication review processes. As a
result, in 2020, there is no uniform system across the government to vet
manuscripts for publication; the process remains uncoordinated, opaque,
incredibly time consuming, and individuals subjected to it often accuse it of
being overly broad.  A 2019 lawsuit even challenged its
constitutionality.  In 2017, Congress mandated the Office of the Director of
National Intelligence to streamline the vetting process, but no new policy has
been announced.

The disparate and expansive review system has ignited
controversy and multiple lawsuits and court cases over the years. The National
Security Archive in this posting is providing several of the most egregious
examples of the prepublication review process gone wrong:

  1. Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of
    Roosevelt, McGraw-Hill, 1979.

One of the earliest cases of the CIA requiring
prepublication clearance was Kermit Roosevelt’s account of the 1953 coup d’etat
in Iran. Roosevelt was on-the-ground coordinator of the operation in
Tehran and a relative of two American presidents. In 1976, he first sought
permission to publish Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran,
not long after Victor Marchetti and Philip Agee had scandalized the
intelligence community with their published, and in Agee’s case
unvetted, exposés of CIA operations.

CIA officials obstructed the publication of Countercoup
for two years. At first, the agency’s Information Management Staff proposed
that Roosevelt turn the manuscript into an article for their in-house journal,
which would keep the material classified. He refused. Reviewers
eventually itemized 156 points in the text they deemed unacceptable – largely
covering sources’ identities, locations of CIA stations, and similar information.
After months of negotiations, the former agent decided he had had enough,
telling CIA lawyers, “I believe many of your objections are
unreasonable.” Compromising on a few final points, the agency relented and
McGraw-Hill published the book in 1979. By then, in the words of a CIA
reviewer, the CIA imposed changes had rendered the book “essentially a work of

  1. Decent Interval, An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s
    Indecent End Told by the CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam
    , Frank Snepp, Random House 1977.

Frank Snepp, a former CIA agent, refused to submit his
book, Decent Interval, to a prepublication review, citing his First
Amendment rights. The U.S. Government sued – not for exposing classified
information but for breach of contract because the agreement he had signed on
joining the agency called for prior review of written work. The case went to
the Supreme Court with Snepp maintaining that the lower court rulings amounted
to unconstitutional prior restraint.Without holding a hearing or accepting
written arguments, the high court ruled (6-3) against Snepp, setting a
precedent – possibly unintentionally – that granted the government sweeping
authority to impose limits on former employees’ rights to publish their work
regardless of whether they had signed a contract or whether secrets were at
risk – the main principle of prepublication review.(Throughout the case,
government attorneys acknowledged the manuscript contained nothing
classified.)The SCOTUS ruling also overturned the appeals court’s decision on another
element of the case involving the establishment of a constructive trust on the
proceeds of Snepp’s book.As a result, the government was allowed to recoup all
profits that would normally have gone to the author.

  1. Secrecy and Democracy: The CIA In Transition,“ Admiral Stansfield Turner, Houghton Mifflin,

Even though he had been DCI—director of central
intelligence—the CIA took two years to vet and approve Admiral Turner’s book in
the early 1980s. In testimony before the House Legislation and National
Security Subcommittee in August 1988, Turner presented a compelling set of
arguments against the prepublication review process and urged Congress not to
force officials in agencies outside the CIA and NSA to undergo such vetting.In
his remarks — also vetted by the CIA’s prepublication review board — Turner
noted that he was barred from publishing information that he had already
delivered in an unclassified speech and lambasted the time it took – two years
– for agency staff to clear his book. “To rub salt in the wounds, it took the
agency 21 months – let me repeat that, 21 months – … to be permitted to say
just what the CIA representative had said in court. That is a gross abuse of
the constitutional right of a citizen to free speech, in my opinion.” Turner
recommend limiting the prepublication review process to 10 years following
separation from the Agency.

At the conclusion of his testimony Turner emphasized a
point that remains particularly relevant as the battle over Bolton’s book
unfolds:“Our form of government is built on the assumption of a well-informed
electorate. As we stifle expression from people with first-hand experience in
government, we reduce the likelihood that the electorate will be well-informed
…. Unless there is a compelling case for secrecy, we should always come down
on the side of openness.”

Former Intelligence Community empoyees in recent years
have continued to lodge formal complaints – and lawsuits – against a variety of
agencies in connection with onerous, unjustified, and allegedly
unconstitutional prepublication review requirements.The Knight First Amendment
Institute at Columbia University and the ACLU recently challenged the prepublication
review system in federal court.
 The suit, Edgar v. Ratcliffe,
targets the entire review system – which requires former intelligence and
military officials to submit any fiction or nonfiction writing that relates to
their government work to government censors to ensure no government secrets are
disclosed – rather than a specific piece of writing. The plaintiffs, all former
Intelligence Community members, argue that the system, which was initially
limited to a select group of CIA employees but is now a routine part of
obtaining a security clearance, is “dysfunctional,” ambiguous, and restricts
free speech and due-process rights. The final item included in today’s posting
is the April 2, 2019, complaint in the case.


Document 1

CIA, Routing Sheet for attached Speed Letter from
Information Management Staff regarding Kermit Roosevelt manuscript, July 10,

Source: CIA Freedom of Information Act

Document 2

CIA, Routing Sheet for attached Speed Letter from
Information Management Staff regarding Kermit Roosevelt manuscript, July 26,

Source: CIA Freedom of Information Act

Document 3

CIA, William F. Donnelly to Office of General Counsel,
“Manuscript ‘Countercoup’,” May 1, 1979, Secret

Source: CIA Freedom of Information Act

Document 4

CIA, Stansfield Turner testimony on Prepublication
Review, August 4, 1988 (with routing sheet and cover memo dated August 12,

Source: CIA CREST database

Document 5

U.S. District Court, District of Maryland,
Complaint, Edgar v. Ratcliffe, April 2, 2019

Source: Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia