On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the Justice Department has opened an investigation into former National Security Advisor John Bolton to determine whether his 2020 book, The Room Where It Happened, improperly disclosed classified government information.
Many people will rightly find Bolton to be an unsympathetic figure in this dispute: A tireless advocate for the U.S. to escalate and even start wars, Bolton never belonged anywhere near an administration that purports to be charting a less interventionist course on foreign policy matters. But President Trump selected Bolton for the job, and now he must face the consequences for that mistake, which include having to suffer Bolton’s tell-all about his time in the White House.
Citing national security concerns and breach of contract, the Trump administration fought like hell to prevent Simon & Schuster from publishing the book, but a judge ultimately ruled that it was too late to prevent the information from getting out. Now the Justice Department appears to be hunting for reasons to subject Bolton to criminal penalties. According to The New York Times:
Mr. Trump has made clear that he wants his former aide prosecuted. He said on Twitter that Mr. Bolton “broke the law” and “should be in jail, money seized, for disseminating, for profit, highly Classified information.” He has also called Mr. Bolton “a dope,” “incompetent” and the book “a compilation of lies and made up stories, all intended to make me look bad.”
Lawyers for the National Security Council and the Justice Department expressed reservations about opening a criminal case, in part because Mr. Trump’s public statements made it seem like an overtly political act, according to two officials briefed on the discussions. Others noted that a federal judge this summer said that Mr. Bolton may have broken the law, and that the case had merit.
The attorneys’ concerns have obvious merit: It’s clear that Trump wants to punish Bolton for badmouthing him, and is looking for a pretext to do so. Any effort to sanction Bolton will come at the expense of a vital principle: the right of citizens to be informed about their governments’ misdeeds. As I wrote previously:
The administration should not be able to invoke the dreaded specter of “national security” every time someone is prepared to say something that might cause the government embarrassment. This is reminiscent of the efforts to stop whistleblower Edward Snowden from publishing his own book about the federal government’s vast ability to spy on U.S. citizens. Knowing that it was unlikely the very power apparatus his book was criticizing would give him a fair shake, Snowden opted not to submit his manuscript for government review, which led a court to rule that the authorities could seize the book’s profits.
That Bolton finds himself in a similar position to former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden is, of course, deeply ironic, noted Reason‘s Scott Shackford, given that “Bolton accused Snowden of treason for revealing the government’s secret surveillance of American citizens and declared in 2013 that Snowden’s disclosures were a ‘grave threat to national security.'” But Bolton’s own penchant for branding whistleblowers as traitors does not mean that he should be denied fair treatment. Instead of pursuing a vindictive witch hunt against the former national security advisor, the Trump administration should discredit his ideas by showing that the U.S. is made safer and more secure by doing the opposite of what Bolton wanted.