The real point of John Bolton's unapproved tell-all book

Former national security adviser John Bolton has written a book that has not received pre-publication approval from the government. 

I was a CIA officer, and I also wrote a book without prepublication approval, though the circumstances were different. 

The government's prepublication power comes from the Snepp case.  In 1977, a former CIA officer named Frank Snepp wrote a book without prepublication approval that criticized the CIA's actions in Vietnam.  The government sued him in civil court, won, and took Snepp's book money.  The case established the government's ability to take profits from authors who publish without approval. 

The Snepp case has been effective because government employee memoirs are written to make money.  Most CIA directors write books to cash in, and because of Snepp, they are careful to obtain prepublication approval.  I have read all of these memoirs and believe they contain secret and confidential information but were approved because they go easy on the intelligence agencies. 

Even with help from ghostwriters, these bureaucrats' memoirs are boring almost beyond human endurance.  Bolton's 592 pages will not be brilliant writing — rather, the publisher is selling the promise of secrets and dirt.  It certainly diminishes the power of Bolton's message — does Bolton seek to improve our government or to get $2 million?

I did not profit from my book and gave the proceeds to reliable charities.  When the government denied approval for my book, I proceeded anyway because my message about intelligence reform was more important than the threat of criminal charges or civil suits.  The CIA had become a lazy, corrupt, bureaucratic mess, with 90% of its vast hordes of employees living their entire careers in the Washington, D.C. area.  The CIA should instead be an effective fighter against America's enemies overseas.  The book was critical of CIA bureaucracy, but it contained no secrets. 

The book led to improvements in efficiency and financial accountability within the CIA, according to friends still on duty there.  It has been mandatory reading for new CIA recruits, depending on who is running the training courses.  I thank publishing editor Roger Kimball and literary agent Lynn Chu for their help in making that happen. 

As expected, the Department of Justice sued me in a civil case using the Snepp precedent.  It quickly won a summary judgment, but there was no penalty.  I had given the money away, and the DOJ didn't want it.  In hindsight, they were gentle – they probably would have resolved it right away had I just picked up the phone and found out what they wanted.  

I had left the CIA in good standing and sought to improve the organization.  Bolton was fired, and he seeks revenge and money.  Unfortunately, while people go to jail when they sell secrets in cloak-and-dagger espionage fashion, no one's ever gone to jail for selling secrets to get a book deal.  Because most CIA directors have sold secrets via their books, the DOJ probably figures it would be too hard to convince a jury to jail Bolton.  

The DOJ should easily be able to use the Snepp precedent, however, to confiscate the money that Bolton receives.

Ishmael Jones is a former CIA officer and the author of The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.