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Fmr. Trump SECDEF Esper suing Pentagon for blocking parts of his new book

Then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks with President Donald Trump at a White House coronavirus briefing (Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Sipa USA/TNS)
November 29, 2021

Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is suing the Pentagon after it blocked portions of his memoir — which detailed his time serving under President Donald Trump — from being published. Esper’s book, “A Sacred Oath,” provides some behind-the-scenes details about the second half of the Trump administration and the weeks leading up to Esper’s firing after the 2020 election.

Unspecified portions of Esper’s memoir were redacted after he submitted the book for a pre-publication review by the Department of Defense. On Sunday, attorney Mark Zaid announced he had filed a lawsuit on Esper’s behalf in the federal district court in Washington D.C., seeking to overturn the Department of Defense’s redactions.

“Today we filed lawsuit for former Trump Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to challenge @DeptofDefense prepublication classification review that is blocking portions of his manuscript from being published,” Zaid tweeted. Esper is highest-ranking official to ever sue.”

Zaid also tweeted a statement by Esper, explaining his decision to sue.

“The American people deserve a full and unvarnished accounting of our nation’s history, especially the more difficult periods,” Esper wrote. “My memoir — A Sacred Oath — offers important details and new insights into many of the most controversial events that occurred during the tumultuous second half of the Trump Administration.”

Esper’s book is slated for publication in May 2022. According to Zaid, the book covers Esper’s involvement in responding to domestic issues such as the Pentagon’s response to COVID-19, the Pentagon and White House response management of civil unrest in the summer of 2020 and international issues such as Iran, Germany, China, Venezuela and Russia. It also takes a behind-the-scenes look at Esper’s “increasingly contentious relationship” with the Trump administration, Zaid added.

Esper said he followed his legal obligation and a commitment to protecting national security by submitting his manuscript to the DoD for review. He said the DoD took nearly six months to review the manuscript before having his 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 continued. “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.”

In a Nov. 8 email shared with the New York Times, Esper wrote to his successor, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, questioning the DoD’s review of his manuscript. Esper wrote that “multiple words, sentences and paragraphs from approximately 60 pages of the manuscript were redacted,” and “no written explanation was offered to justify the deletions.”

Esper said the DoD review did not confirm any portion of his manuscript contained classified information but wrote that the DoD “asked me to not quote former President Trump and others in meetings, to not describe conversations between the former president and me, and to not use certain verbs or nouns when describing historical events.”

“I was also asked to delete my views on the actions of other countries, on conversations I held with foreign officials, and regarding international events that have been widely reported,” Esper added. “Many items were already in the public domain; some were even published by D.O.D.”

In his email, Esper said the Pentagon office in charge of reviewing his manuscript had offered to sit with him and discuss compromised language, to which Esper responded, “While I appreciate their efforts, I should not be required to change my views, opinions or descriptions of events simply because they may be too candid at times for normal diplomatic protocol.”

Esper also raised the issue of some of the little-known stories included in his memoir ending up in news articles during the DoD review.

“At least one story, which was more than a year old and known to only a small handful of senior D.O.D. officials, had not previously been publicly discussed, and the timing of the appearance appears suspicious,” the lawsuit states.

The purpose of the Pentagon manuscript review is to determine whether information compromises national security, but not to hide information that may be politically damaging or uncomfortable.

Former national security adviser John Bolton went through a similar legal battle over the contents of his own Trump-era memoir, “The Room Where it Happened.” After a prepublication review sought to redact portions of Bolton’s book, Bolton went ahead with its publication anyways. The Trump-era Department of Justice responded by opening up a criminal investigation into Bolton on grounds he illegally published classified information. The DOJ also sued Bolton for the proceeds of his book.

In June of this year, Attorney General Merrick Garland reversed course by dropping both the criminal investigation and civil action against Bolton.