Bolton’s Battle With Government Censorship

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Former national security adviser John Bolton is about to learn that the government’s pre-publication review process is little more than a violation of the First Amendment’s free speech rights.  Bolton’s book, “The Room Where It Happened,” which exposes the perfidy of the Trump administration’s orchestrated extortion of the Ukrainian government, is scheduled for release in March 2020.  The book is already proving more damaging to Donald Trump than the 448-page Mueller report, and rivals the attention given to the CIA whistleblower’s account of Trump’s efforts to bribe Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.  But there are indications that the government will demand the deletion of significant portions of the manuscript, and will do its best to delay publication as long as possible.

Having survived the review of numerous book-length manuscripts by the censors of the Central Intelligence Agency, I am in a position to offer Mr. Bolton several warnings and even a suggestion.  First of all, the pre-publication review process is arbitrary and capricious.  Manuscripts that offer praise of a government agency, particularly one in the intelligence community, get a cursory review that rarely takes more than a week or two.  Former CIA directors Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, for example, suffered no changes in their manuscripts, and Panetta didn’t even bother to submit his manuscript until the book was scheduled for delivery to book stores.  Former CIA director Stansfield Turner was allowed to discuss the overseas activities of CIA station chiefs; I was told my discussion compromised essential security issues.

Critics of an agency, however, are subjected to extensive delays that can last more than one year.  My book on whistleblowing at the CIA to call attention to the politicization of intelligence and to stop the confirmation of Gates as CIA director was held up for eleven months.  The book contained no classified information, and I had left the CIA nearly three decades before the manuscript was submitted for review.  One of the redactions concerned a footnote that carried the title of an article from the New York Timesthat the the CIA censor said was classified.  The title was classified, according to the CIA, because it mentioned CIA secret prisons that resorted to torture and abuse.  Hardly a secret!

Other redactions concerned CIA drones in Southwest Asia that the CIA considers classified.  The fact that CIA drone activity is regularly reported in the news media and that former president Barack Obama discussed it in public speeches meant nothing to the CIA reviewers.

Bolton will learn that the White House censors are not required to offer any explanation for their demands for redaction of certain items.  Moreover, Bolton will have no real opportunity to discuss the changes that are demanded.  And even if he were to pursue legal action, Bolton will quickly learn that the courts are biased in favor of the government in virtually all national security cases.

Bolton will also learn that government censors are not as interested in the publication of genuine national security secrets, which are leaked by government officials to favored journalists on a regular basis, but are really trying to stop information that would be embarrassing to an agency or its director or to the president of the United States.

In other words, the pre-publication review system throughout the government is in fact a secret system to censor legitimate information that should be in the hands of congressional committees, news organizations, and particularly the larger public.  Justice Sonia Sotomayor opined in 2014 that the speech of public employees “holds special value precisely because these employees gain knowledge of matters of public concern through their employment.”

The Congress demanded several years ago that the government, particularly the intelligence community, reform the pre-publication review system to allow for judicial review of redactions; to establish enforceable deadlines; and to create clear censorship standards.  I am currently involved in a case before the federal court in Maryland in order to end the government’s censorship and use of prior restraint against former federal employees.  The case is being argued by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.  I invite Mr. Bolton to join our small group of plaintiffs.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for