John Bolton reportedly received a $2 million advance for his tell-all book about his time as President Trump's national security adviser, and if it sells well, additional royalties could follow.
But a judge's ruling has raised questions about whether Bolton will be allowed to keep the money for his work titled The Room Where It Happened.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth on Saturday rejected the Trump administration's attempt to block the formal publication of the book on Tuesday. He noted that news organizations already had copies, hundreds of thousands were at warehouses about to be shipped, and Bolton was giving interviews.
But the judge also wrote that Bolton was publishing without receiving an official letter from the government saying the book does not contain classified information. Former national security officials such as Bolton are required to submit manuscripts to their former agency in advance of publication so the government can review them for classified material, which would have to be deleted.
"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," the judge wrote.
The battle between Bolton and the Trump administration offers a window into the mysterious process involving former national security officials who write about their time in sensitive positions.
A long history
These fights date back decades. Stansfield Turner, the CIA director under President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, complained that it took two years to get approval for his book about his time as head of the spy agency.
This issue is cropping up even more frequently in the post-Sept. 11 era, with former national security officials, CIA officers and military members writing books and op-eds, and appearing on TV more often than ever before.
Sometimes the process works with no apparent drama. Jim Mattis, the first defense secretary in the Trump administration, wrote a book last year that focused mostly on his military career and America's wars over the past two decades. He didn't criticize Trump in the book (though he did so earlier this month), and there were no signs of any delays in publication.
Then there's former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette, who wrote No Easy Day, a 2012 book about his role in the raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden a year earlier.
The book was an instant bestseller, and Bissonnette made a fortune — but he didn't submit a manuscript to the military for clearance. The government sued Bissonnette, and in 2016 he agreed to forfeit the $6.8 million he earned from the book and related speeches.
In Bolton's case, he sent his manuscript to the National Security Council in December, three months after he resigned as national security adviser. The NSC review process included multiple face-to-face sessions with Bolton, who took detailed notes and made requested changes, according to his lawyer.
The agency is supposed to limit its review to a search for classified information, and cannot order the removal of material just because it is embarrassing or contains opinions the agency doesn't like.
Bolton thought the process was completed by the end of April, and expected to receive the green light. But the NSC apparently launched a second review, and no approval letter has been forthcoming.
So what's going on?
Washington attorney Mark Zaid is not involved with the Bolton case but has represented dozens of clients who've written about their work in national security. He said government agencies and the military often drag their feet to delay publication. Still, he said, an author cannot legally publish without that government approval letter.
"That's your golden ticket, your Willy Wonka golden ticket to get out of jail. And Bolton doesn't have it," Zaid said.
Bolton faces two potential risks, Zaid added. If the government says the book contains classified information, it could file criminal charges against him, though Zaid considers that scenario highly unlikely.
The government has a much stronger case, he said, if it attempts to force Bolton to return the money.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Over the weekend, a judge ruled against the Trump administration and refused to block the Tuesday publication of a tell-all book by John Bolton, the president's former national security adviser. But the judge also had harsh words for Bolton and said his big paycheck for the book could be in jeopardy. This battle provides a window into this mysterious process involving former national security officials who write about their time in sensitive positions. And let's bring in our national security correspondent Greg Myre, who has been digging into this for us. Hi, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So Bolton, definitely not the first former national security official to publish a book. Just remind us about this process and how things are supposed to work.
MYRE: So these battles have been going on for decades, but they've really heated up in the post-9/11 era, with many more national security officials, CIA officers, members of the military writing books and appearing on TV. Now, once these folks leave office, they are free to write what they want. But there's a bright red line that they can't cross, and that's divulging classified information.
So to ensure this, they're required to submit manuscripts to the place where they worked - so in Bolton's case, this is the National Security Council. The agency checks for classified information, but that can often be a gray area. And the agency is not supposed to be looking for anything that's just embarrassing or opinions that they don't like - just classified information.
GREENE: Well, I mean, is there usually debate over this process? Or does the process usually take place in some orderly way?
MYRE: Well, it can depend. Two examples - former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wrote a book last year. It was mostly about his military career. There were no classification issues. He didn't criticize Trump then, though he has since. So no real drama there. But the second example is former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette. He wrote a book about his role in the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It was a huge bestseller, and he made a fortune, but he didn't submit his manuscript to the military. So he ultimately had to forfeit the $6.8 million he earned from that book.
GREENE: Well, and the talk of Bolton's potential earnings and what could happen to that money has now come up. So remind us, where does Bolton's book stand after we had this court ruling over the weekend?
MYRE: So the judge said the horse is out of the barn. News organizations have copies; thousands are in warehouses, about to be shipped. Bolton has given interviews to NPR, among others. And the judge noted that Bolton, like all senior officials, had to sign an agreement requiring advance approval. The NSC has gone over the book page by page with Bolton, and they thought they were done with this process at the end of April. But, apparently, the NSC has launched a second review, and Bolton still hasn't received a final letter of approval.
GREENE: Why would that be? Why hasn't the letter been sent?
MYRE: Well, we don't know for sure. And I spoke with attorney Mark Zaid. He's not involved in this case, but he's represented dozens of clients who've written books like this. And he says the government will drag its feet and play games to delay publication. Still, you can't legally publish unless you get this government approval letter.
MARK ZAID: That's your golden ticket, your Willy Wonka golden ticket, to get out of jail. And Bolton doesn't have it.
MYRE: So without this golden ticket, Bolton's golden paycheck may be at risk. He got a reported $2 million advance, and royalties could follow. But the judge said Bolton made a risky bet, and he could lose this money and even be prosecuted if there's classified information in the book. So the legal case isn't over yet.
GREENE: All right, and we'll be following it. NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks so much, as always.
MYRE: My pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF NATE MERCEREAU'S "RIGHTEOUS ENERGY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.