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Did the Trump Administration Really Issue Bolton a 'Formal Threat'?

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

I’m a little behind on this because I’ve been following the coronavirus thing, but this is a real headline from a real tweet by sometimes-reasonable Jake Tapper, who seems to be off his meds or something.

The headline says it: “White House has issued formal threat to Bolton to keep him from publishing book”.

Oh my God. A. Formal. Threat.

That does set my sense of whimsy to work. What exactly is a formal threat? Is it delivered by US Marshals in tuxedos? Do they arrive with brass knuckles to make clear they’re serious about the threat? Do they send a catafalque on a horse-drawn carriage, with an undertaker in a long tail-coat and top hat, to make it clear they’re serious?

It turns out, sadly, that the Formal Threat was instead a letter delivered to Bolton’s lawyers.

Among the terrifying threats are included:

“As we discussed, the National Security Council (NSC) Access Management directorate has been provided the manuscript submitted by your client, former Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs John Bolton, for prepublication review.”

Anyone who has ever received a high-level clearance has to sign certain things as part of the process. Among them is a nondisclosure agreement, an “NDA”.

You might think — I did at the time — that a separate NDA is sort of silly. You’ve just signed and sworn an oath not to disclose classified information, penalties up to and including death. So now an NDA?

The way it was explained to me was that you could, say, write a book that made irresponsible disclosures and, thanks to the First Amendment, you might be prosecuted but the book couldn’t be withheld by the government. (Those of us of a certain age might recall the Pentagon Papers and Daniel Ellsberg.) So the NDA takes a different approach: you agree, by contract, to allow the Government to review anything you write in order to make sure that you don’t disclose anything classified. But the penalty isn’t possible jail — that was covered in the oath — it’s that if you publish without approval, the Government receives all revenues. So, at least in theory, even if you get away with apparent violations of the Espionage Act, you at least wouldn’t be able to profit from them.

But back to the Formal Threat. Ellen J Knight, Senior Director of Records, Access, and Information Security Management follows up saying,

“We will do our best to work with you to ensure your clients ability to tell his story in a manner that protects U. S. national security.”

Chilling, isn’t it?

You can read the whole letter for yourself; it’s a total of about 200 words of the mildest bureaucratic prose one could imagine.

Now, Bolton’s lawyer, Charles J. Cooper, disputes that there is anything classified in the book. This misses a few key facts:

  • Cooper may or may not know what is actually classified.
  • Even if he does (I hope he’s cleared) his opinion isn’t dispositive.
  • The process here is completely normal, except that Boldton is getting expedited service.
  • Cooper and Bolton don’t get to decide.

No matter the sensational title, the actual story here is that Bolton’s book is getting reviewed for classified information in the same way as everyone else — except probably more quickly — while the NSC offers to “do our best to assist your client.”

Which is one hell of a way to run a coverup.