Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper sues Defense Department over memoir redactions and “unusual” delay

Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks as President Donald Trump listens during a press briefing about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, May 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper is suing the Pentagon over its redactions of a memoir he has written about his time as Secretary of the Army and Secretary of Defense under former President Donald Trump. The former president announced that he was firing Esper in a tweet less than a week after he lost the 2020 election to President Biden.

Esper claims in his lawsuit that he submitted his manuscript, which relates his role during what he describes as “an unprecedented time,” to the Department of Defense for review in May. He says he did not receive the redactions from the Pentagon until October 7, which he called in his filing an “unusual” length of time for a review of a memoir by a former defense secretary.

The lawsuit also notes that passages on 60 pages of the manuscript were redacted and claims “no written explanation was offered to justify the deletions.” There was no assertion, according to the suit, that the deleted material posed a national security threat or contained classified information.

“The Manuscript does not contain any classified information,” the lawsuit claims, arguing that therefore, allowing the redactions to remain would infringe on Esper’s constitutional rights.

Esper said he was asked not to quote Mr. Trump and not to describe his conversations with the former president or with foreign officials, even though much of the material “was already in the public domain,” according to the suit.

The former defense chief is asking a federal judge to stop the department from “restraining the publication” of any unclassified material in his manuscript — and to declare that the text that’s been redacted by the Pentagon is not classified.

The Defense Department, Esper’s attorneys argue, “has unlawfully imposed a prior restraint upon Mr. Esper by delaying, obstructing and infringing on his constitutional right to publish his unclassified manuscript entitled ‘A Sacred Oath’.”

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

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement: “We are aware of Mr. Esper’s concerns regarding the pre-publication of his memoir. As with all such reviews, the Department takes seriously its obligation to balance national security with an author’s narrative desire. Given that this matter is now under litigation, we will refrain from commenting further.”

Eleanor Watson contributed to this report.

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