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Ex-NSC official who reviewed Bolton book claims political intervention by White House

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Washington — A former National Security Council (NSC) official who led the prepublication review of former national security adviser John Bolton's book for classified information detailed in a new court filing "unprecedented" involvement by political appointees in the White House who "commandeered" what is supposed to be an apolitical process.

A lawyer for Ellen Knight, the former Senior Director for Records Access and Information Security Management at the National Security Council (NSC), made the revelations in a new filing with the federal district court in the District of Columbia, which is considering a legal battle filed by the Trump administration against Bolton over publication of his book, "The Room Where It Happened." The book was published by Simon & Schuster, a division of ViacomCBS.

In a letter to Bolton's legal team and the Justice Department, attorney Kenneth Wainstein said Knight raised concerns about the actions of White House and Justice Department lawyers after her review of Bolton's manuscript had been completed but while the Trump administration considered litigation to block publication, contending it still contained classified information. Bolton's attorney filed the letter in court on Wednesday.

Knight, Wainstein wrote, warned that a "designedly apolitical process had been commandeered by political appointees for a seemingly political purpose." She also speculated to Justice Department and White House lawyers that litigation against Bolton was occurring "because the most powerful man in the world said that it needed to happen,'" an assertion some did not dispute, according to Wainstein.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec defended the White House and Justice Department in a statement.

"Ms. Knight's letter confirms that Mr. Bolton did not receive the appropriate and required written, pre-publication approval, and it is undisputed that the process was not completed at the time Mr. Bolton's book was released," she said. "The publication of a memoir by a former National Security Adviser, right after his departure, is an unprecedented action, and it is not surprising that National Security Council staff would pay close attention to ensure that the book does not contain the release of classified information." 

In the letter, Knight's attorney detailed the chain of events that began December 30, when prepublication review of Bolton's manuscript began, through the end of her detail with the NSC, which ended August 20. 

According to Knight, Bolton's manuscript initially contained "voluminous amounts of classified information and that it would take a significant effort to put it into publishable shape."

Former White House Nat'l Security Adviser John Bolton Speaks At Duke University Forum
Former national security adviser John Bolton speaks at Duke University on February 17, 2020, in Durham, North Carolina. Getty Images

After working closely and speaking extensively with Bolton and his lawyer, Charles Cooper, the prepublication review process concluded on April 27, when it was determined that "all classification concerns had been addressed and that publication of the manuscript, as heavily revised, would disclose no information that would cause harm to our national security."

Knight told Bolton she had no more suggested changes, but said the process was still ongoing. In late April, Wainstein said Knight contacted lawyers with the NSC to inform them of her findings and "coordinate the finalizing of the prepublication review process," which she said was "an unusual step" for prepublication reviews, as they do not involve other officials from the NSC.

After informing the Legal Office of the NSC she was prepared to approve the manuscript, Deputy Legal Adviser Sue Bai told her to hold off and take no further action, Wainstein said.

Knight's lawyer recalled the legal office requested a copy of Bolton's manuscript in early January and "then immediately started playing what was, in her experience, an outsize role in the review process, specifically by overseeing the correspondence with Mr. Cooper and Ambassador Bolton and dictating the timing of that correspondence." In one example, after Cooper requested Knight's staff prioritize a chapter on Ukraine during impeachment proceedings, then-Deputy NSC Legal Adviser Michael Ellis, a former aide to Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, instructed her not to respond.

"These interactions with NSC Legal in the course of a prepublication review were unprecedented in her experience," Knight's lawyers said.

Knight said her notification that the prepublication review of Bolton's book had been completed "set off a chain of events that led to the filing of the instant litigation."

Knight recalled being summoned to a meeting in the White House Situation Room with Justice Department lawyers in June to explain why she told Bolton's lawyer the prepublication process was complete and was asked if Bolton and Cooper knew the reason for the delay in clearing the manuscript. During that meeting, Knight said she learned Ellis was conducting his own prepublication review, in which "hundreds of passages" were flagged as containing classified information.

"Based on her review of the markings, she could tell that Mr. Ellis had simply looked for passages that may have been classifiable under the broad categories laid out in the relevant Executive Order (EO 13526) and deemed those passages classified and unpublishable, as though he were doing a classification review of a government record," Knight's lawyers wrote. "However, this manuscript was not a government record; it was the First-Amendment protected writings of a private citizen."

Knight met again with White House lawyers on June 13, during which she was questioned about several issues, including the discrepancies between Ellis' review and her team's. She also recalled being asked by several Justice Department and White House attorneys to sign a declaration that purportedly explained her role in the review process, but Knight raised several reservations, her lawyer said. 

A 16-year federal employee, Knight was detailed from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to the NSC in August 2018 for a two-year stint. While she received assurances she would have to option to remain permanently at the NSC at the end of her detail, Knight's lawyers said she was told her time at the White House would be coming to an end — which occurred after she declined to sign a declaration regarding the lawsuit against Bolton. Knight left the NSC on August 20.

"Ms. Knight has spent her career avoiding the spotlight and has no interest in the public attention that has accompanied this litigation," her lawyer said. "Given that reticence, she was initially happy to remain on the sidelines of the litigation. With the government's recent effort to prevent any discovery — which would have the effect of precluding scrutiny of the government's conduct and motives in the Bolton prepublication review process — she now feels an obligation to tell her account of that process and to help fill in the gaps that have been left in the public narrative to date."

Bolton's memoir, which paints President Trump in an unflattering light, hit shelves June 23 after an unsuccessful effort by the Justice Department to block publication over concerns it contained classified information. But the Trump administration is moving to seize profits from the book, and the Justice Department is investigating publication of the tell-all.

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