Justice Dept. Asks for Identifying Details on Anonymous Op-Ed Author

The Justice Department is trying to unearth the identity of the 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 on Monday.

In the letter, Assistant Attorney General Joseph H. Hunt asked the publisher of a forthcoming book by the writer and the author’s book agents for proof that the official never signed a nondisclosure agreement and had no access to classified information or, absent that, for 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,” Mr. Hunt wrote to Carol Ross of the Hachette Book Group, which is publishing Anonymous’s book, as well as to Matt Latimer and Keith Urbahn, the agents for the former self-described senior official.

Mr. Trump, people close to him said, has long been troubled by the existence of Anonymous, whose Op-Ed condemned him as essentially unfit for office and described a “resistance” within the administration trying to keep the government on course, identifying as part of that group. Mr. Trump said last year that he wanted the Justice Department to investigate the essay, declaring its writing 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 immediately respond to an email asking whether Mr. Trump had directed the Justice Department to act.

Nondisclosure agreements are typical in the Trump administration, Mr. Hunt wrote. Previous administrations generally did not force officials to sign them, and legal experts say they are essentially unenforceable for government employees. But Mr. Trump long used them in business as well.

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, Mr. 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,” Mr. Hunt wrote.

A Justice Department official insisted that law enforcement officials were simply gathering the facts they would request anytime an administration official decided to write a book about his or her tenure as a government employee. Officials are 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 Justice Department official said.

The publication of the Op-Ed in September 2018 set off frenzied speculation about its author and 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 Mr. Hunt’s requests for information. Hachette has “made a commitment of confidentiality to Anonymous and we intend to honor that commitment,” the statement said.

Javelin, the firm that employs Mr. Latimer and Mr. Urbahn, backed up Hachette and described Mr. Hunt’s letter as a warning. “Our author knows that the president is determined to unmask whistle-blowers who may be in his midst,” Javelin said in a statement.

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 Mr. 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 Mr. Snowden’s book.

The former F.B.I. deputy director Andrew G. McCabe did allow government officials to review his recent memoir for classified information. In it, Mr. McCabe discussed his career in the F.B.I. But he left out details about some of his most contentious moments in the days after Mr. Trump fired James B. Comey as director of the bureau, including suggestions by the deputy attorney general at the time, Rod J. Rosenstein, to wear a wire to secretly record his conversations with Mr. Trump and to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.

Katie Benner contributed reporting.

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