The Justice Department is demanding identifying details about the senior Trump administration official who denounced the president in a New York Times Op-Ed last year under the byline Anonymous, according to a letter from a senior law enforcement official Monday ahead of a forthcoming book by the still-unnamed writer.
Assistant Attorney General Joseph H. Hunt asked the book's publisher and the author's book agents for proof that the official never signed a nondisclosure agreement and had no access to classified information. Absent that evidence, Hunt asked that they hand over information about where the person worked in the government, and when.
"If the author is, in fact, a current or former 'senior official' in the Trump administration, publication of the book may violate that official's legal obligations under one or more nondisclosure agreements," Hunt wrote to Carol Ross of the Hachette Book Group, which is publishing Anonymous' book, and to Matt Latimer and Keith Urbahn, the agents for the former self-described senior official.
Though a Justice Department official insisted that the letter was simply part of the typical fact-finding that officials do when executive branch employees plan to write about their government service, Anonymous' representatives cast it as an effort to unmask their client, and a warning.
"Our author knows that the president is determined to unmask whistleblowers who may be in his midst," the agents' firm, Javelin, said in a statement. The agents have represented other administration officials who wrote books but said the letter was a first.
President Donald Trump, who has denounced the leaks that have plagued his White House and sought to keep people around him from sharing private details, has long been troubled by the existence of Anonymous, people close to him said. He said last year that he wanted the Justice Department to investigate the Op-Ed, declaring it an act of treason.
Prosecutors said at the time that such an inquiry would be inappropriate because it was likely that no laws were broken.
White House officials did not respond to an email asking whether Trump had directed the Justice Department to act. CNN first reported on Hunt's letter.
The letter immediately raised questions, even if Hunt was simply doing his job, said Chuck Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney and senior FBI official.
"It is obviously chilling and likely intended that way, but if the government has done it with others, it could be legitimate," Rosenberg said. "The government has an interest in enforcing nondisclosure agreements and protecting classified information. The open question here is motive."
Government employees with access to classified information are required to sign nondisclosure agreements, Hunt wrote. Previous administrations generally did not force officials to sign them unless they handled such sensitive intelligence. Legal experts say they are often unenforceable for government employees who did not handle that type of information.
But Trump long used the agreements in business as well, and has pushed to expand their use during his administration.
Officials who are allowed access to classified information must also agree to keep it secret as a condition of obtaining a security clearance to see it.
If the author's representatives could not prove that the official did not sign a nondisclosure agreement or did not have access to classified information, Hunt demanded identifying information about the person's government service.
"If you cannot make those representations, we ask that you immediately provide either the nondisclosure agreements the author signed or the dates of the author's service and the agencies where the author was employed, so that we may determine the terms of the author's nondisclosure agreements and ensure that they have been followed," Hunt wrote.
Justice Department officials were trying to determine whether the author violated a nondisclosure agreement or had access to classified information but have not decided what to do once they have gathered that information, the department official said.
The Justice Department reached out to the author's publisher and agents because it acts as the executive branch's lawyers in all legal matters.
The publication of the Op-Ed in September 2018 condemning Trump as essentially unfit for office and describing a "resistance" within the administration trying to keep the government on course set off frenzied speculation about its author. It prompted discussion within the White House at the time about using polygraph tests to determine the official's identity. Advisers dropped that idea, but the writer's identity has remained a Washington mystery.
The author's name is known to editors in the Opinion section of The Times, but not in the newsroom, which is separate.
The idea for a book grew out of the Op-Ed, and it is scheduled to be published this month. The writer plans to publish under the byline Anonymous again.
Hachette said in a statement that it was declining Hunt's requests for information. Hachette has "made a commitment of confidentiality to Anonymous, and we intend to honor that commitment," the statement said.
The agents would not say whether their client has left government, but the letter was the latest in a spate of recent books by former government workers that have caught law enforcement officials' attention.
In September, the Justice Department sued Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor who wrote a memoir about his decision to reveal top-secret documents about National Security Agency surveillance programs. The department sued because Snowden did not submit his manuscript to the government before publication for a review for potential classified information, which is illegal to disclose. The government sought to seize the proceeds from Snowden's book.
Former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe did allow government officials to review his recent memoir for classified information. In it, McCabe discussed his career in the FBI. But he left out details about some of his most contentious moments in the days after Trump fired James Comey as director of the bureau, including suggestions by the deputy attorney general at the time, Rod Rosenstein, to wear a wire to secretly record his conversations with Trump and to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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