Of all that has been disclosed so far in John Bolton’s campaign to get his book published, the most significant — at least to us — is the classified information non-disclosure agreement that binds Mr. Bolton to keep our national secrets. It starts with the words “intending to be bound.” It describes his obligations in detail. It places the burdens on Mr. Bolton. It ends with his signature. So whatever else is bound up in this dispute, one of the issues will be the value of Mr. Bolton’s word.
We understand one question in the lawsuit the government just filed will be whether the former national security adviser has actually fulfilled the agreement’s terms. And whether the White House, with its vow to focus solely on protecting national secrets, has been acting in good faith. Or whether it’s trying to protect President Trump politically. It’s hard to spot in the court documents, though, anything filed so that far releases Mr. Bolton from his agreement.
So for Mr. Bolton to plunge ahead with publication absent an unambiguous closing letter from the government would be — at least to us — a shocking breach. We don’t know Mr. Bolton well personally. We have, though, worn our fingers to the stubs over the years defending him. We can recall few diplomatic missions so heroic as Mr. Bolton’s leadership of President George H.W. Bush’s successful campaign to get the United Nations to repeal its resolution equating Zionism and racism.
Yet our admiration for Mr. Bolton makes all the more disturbing the blitheness with which he is walking away from his agreement. There will be plenty of time in this campaign to get to Mr. Bolton’s critique of President Trump’s foreign policy and his modus operandus. We gather from early reports that Mr. Bolton claims Mr. Trump asked President Xi for help with his reelection, that he “ok’d” Red Chinese concentration camps, and winged it in meetings.
The most urgent question, though, is what to do about Mr. Bolton’s obligations under the agreement he signed at the start of his employment at the NSC. Simon & Schuster is vowing to release Mr. Bolton’s book on Tuesday. The first thing America seeks in its lawsuit against Mr. Bolton is a ruling on whether Mr. Bolton is in breach of the agreement. We’re no lawyer. With a slug of rye, though, a newspaper editor could answer that question in a matter of minutes.
America also wants the court to enjoin Mr. Bolton from proceeding toward publication of the book and to notify his publisher that the tome hasn’t been cleared for publication. And America asks the court to “impose a constructive trust for the benefit of the United States” to take possession of any money being generated by the book. Such royalties were, in Mr. Bolton’s agreement, specifically assigned to the United States in the event of a breach of his classified information non-disclosure agreement.
A long newspaper life has taught us that, in the practical sense, it will be nigh impossible to retrieve such secrets as might have already been spilled. The Times is reporting that it has a copy of the book. Copies are reportedly already in warehouses. A failure of the court, though, to do what it can to enforce Mr. Bolton’s non-disclosure agreement would leave the United States vulnerable in an age when a juicy insider account can generate for an ex-government aide sudden wealth running into the millions.
Let us just add that, all the legal details aside, we see Mr. Bolton as having been called on a matter of old-fashioned honor. All sorts of avenues exist to air policy differences. By our lights, it just is unseemly, tacky even, for a national security director to go into an administration, work there a year, profess to be shocked, begin a book promptly upon leaving, and then attack the government he’d served — in return for a hefty fee. The right move now is to enforce the law.