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Former defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon, claiming portions of memoir are being improperly redacted

Then-President Donald Trump listens to Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper at a White House briefing in March 2020.
Then-President Donald Trump listens to Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper at a White House briefing in March 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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Former defense secretary Mark T. Esper is suing the Pentagon, claiming that Biden administration officials are preventing him from providing a “full and unvarnished” accounting of his tenure under President Donald Trump in a forthcoming memoir.

In a federal lawsuit filed Sunday, Esper said he submitted his memoir to the Defense Department for review and after six months found “my unclassified manuscript arbitrarily redacted without clearly being told why.”

“I am more than disappointed the current Administration is infringing on my First Amendment constitutional rights,” Esper said in a statement. “And it is with regret that legal recourse is the only path now available for me to tell my full story to the American people.”

The lawsuit, first reported by the New York Times, was filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington.

Trump fires Defense Secretary Mark Esper

Esper’s book, “A Sacred Oath,” is scheduled to be published in May 2022. According to a promotional blurb, it will reveal “the shocking details of his tumultuous tenure while serving in the Trump administration.”

Esper served as secretary of the Army from 2017 to 2019 before his 18 months as defense secretary, a tenure that ended days after Trump lost his reelection bid in November 2020.

According to his attorney, Mark S. Zaid, Esper is the highest-ranking government official to sue for prior restraint related to a book. It is typical for executive branch officials to submit manuscripts for review with the aim of preventing material that may damage national security from becoming public.

“Significant text is being improperly withheld from publication in Secretary Esper’s manuscript under the guise of classification,” Esper’s lawsuit said. “The withheld text is crucial to telling important stories discussed in the manuscript.”

The period during which Esper was defense secretary was “an unprecedented time of civil unrest, public health crises, growing threats abroad, Pentagon transformation, and a White House seemingly bent on circumventing the Constitution,” the lawsuit said.

Defense Department spokesman John F. Kirby said in a statement that the Pentagon is aware of Esper’s complaints.

“As with all such reviews, the department takes seriously its obligation to balance national security with an author’s narrative desire,” Kirby said. “Given that this matter is now under litigation, we will refrain from commenting further.”

A former weapons lobbyist who was confirmed as defense secretary in July 2019, Esper was mostly aligned with Trump on major foreign policy issues but had clashes with the then-president over his steps to draw the military into partisan politics.

Chief among those occurred when Trump demanded that thousands of troops be deployed on the streets of Washington amid protests over the police killing of George Floyd. Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act to use active-duty service members against demonstrators, but Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pushed back, concerned that it would look like martial law.

Missy Ryan contributed to this report.