(Adds NSC comment)
By Jonathan Stempel
Sept 23 (Reuters) - White House officials were accused on Wednesday of improperly intervening to block former national security adviser John Bolton from releasing his best-selling memoir by falsely claiming it contained classified information.
The accusation was made in a letter filed with a federal court in Washington by a lawyer for former National Security Council (NSC) official Ellen Knight, a career official who oversaw the prepublication review of Bolton's "The Room Where It Happened."
Knight had by late April cleared the memoir for its planned June 23 publication, only to then see the process "commandeered by political appointees seemingly for a political purpose," leading to a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit to block publication, her lawyer Kenneth Wainstein said in the letter.
Wainstein also wrote that most, if not all, of the government lawyers Knight dealt with on the matter were "not entirely comfortable" with the strategy they were directed to implement toward Bolton's book.
This allegedly included having Michael Ellis, a politically appointed NSC lawyer and former aide to U.S. Representative Devin Nunes, an ally of President Donald Trump, conduct his own prepublication review of Bolton's book despite lacking relevant training, and declare it still contained classified information.
Knight also claimed she was reassigned after refusing to sign a false declaration that White House and Justice Department lawyers wanted to use in the lawsuit against Bolton.
The NSC said it was reviewing the letter, but "disagrees strongly" with Knight's assertion that the extra review was politically motivated, noting that "multiple high-ranking officials" with access to more information than Knight disagreed with her view.
"The National Security Council acted to protect exceptionally sensitive classified information that Ms. Knight simply missed," NSC spokesman John Ullyot said in a statement, noting that the White House would respond as appropriate.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Knight's letter "confirms that Mr. Bolton did not receive the appropriate and required written, pre-publication approval," and it was "not surprising" that NSC officials would pay close attention to ensure classified information was not released.
Wednesday's filing follows published reports that the Justice Department had opened a criminal probe into whether Bolton illegally disclosed classified information, and that a grand jury had subpoenaed his publisher, Simon & Schuster, and his literary agent.
While the White House was unable to block the release of Bolton's book, it is still suing to collect Bolton's royalties and other payments from the book. A hearing on its request is scheduled for Thursday morning.
Bolton has denied wrongdoing. His lawyer Charles Cooper said in a statement he was assessing how Wainstein's letter might affect the lawsuit.
"We did not solicit the letter in any way; it came as a complete surprise," Cooper said. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; additional reporting by Steve Holland and Alexandra Alper in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown)
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