Defense

Former defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper is suing the Pentagon, arguing that the department he once led is now unlawfully blocking parts of his forthcoming memoir by claiming it is classified information.

Esper, who served as defense secretary from July 2019 until being fired by then-President Trump in November, filed a lawsuit against the Pentagon on Sunday, contending it is "improperly" withholding "significant text" from his upcoming memoir "under the guise of classification."

"The withheld text is crucial to telling important stories discussed in the Manuscript," the lawsuit reads.

The book, titled "A Sacred Oath" and set to be published in May, chronicles the former secretary's experience in what he called a "tumultuous second half of the Trump administration."

Esper, in a statement, said his memoir "offers important details and new insights into many of the most controversial events" that occurred during that time.

He is now claiming in a lawsuit, however, that the Pentagon is unlawfully imposing prior restraint on his book by "delaying, obstructing and infringing on his constitutional right to publish" his book.

"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."

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told The Hill in a statement that the department is "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," Kirby said.

According to the lawsuit, Esper submitted the manuscript of his book to the Pentagon around May 24, 2021 for the mandatory pre-publication review process that executive branch employees must abide by.

The former secretary said he "engaged in extensive interactions and coordination" with the Defense Department's Office of Pre-publication and Security Review (DoDOPSR). The lawsuit claims that the length of time the review process was taking was "unusual for a former Secretary of Defense."

On Oct. 7, Esper received an email from the DoDOPSR informing him that the review of the manuscript was complete and that he would be sent a copy of pages that required "amendment."

Esper claims that between Oct. 7 and Nov. 8, he engaged with the Pentagon to determine why the redactions had been requested, but his questions were not answered.

He sent an email to current Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Nov. 8 expressing concerns about the pre-publication review, particularly the lack of written explanations for the requested redactions, but he said he did not receive a response from the secretary.

The former Pentagon chief, in his email to Austin cited in the lawsuit, said he was asked not to quote Trump in the book, asked not to use certain verbs or nouns when writing about historical events, and asked to delete his perspective on the actions of other countries and conversations he had with foreign officials. 

He also said some of the requested redactions "were already in the public domain; some were even published by DOD."

"For me to redact or alter all of the items currently required by the DOPSR review not only grossly exceeds the purpose of the process, but doing so would be a serious injustice to important moments in history that the American people need to know and understand," Esper wrote to Austin, according to the lawsuit.

Esper said Pentagon officials "proposed that I sit down with OSD Policy - the source for a majority of the redactions - to try and find compromise language," but said that he "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 writes in the lawsuit that while his manuscript was being reviewed by the DoDOPSR "certain stories" that he described in the book "suddenly appeared in mainstream media articles," adding that the timing for one story "appears suspicious."

He suggested that someone involved in the review process might have leaked the information, "possibly to undermine the impact it would have had were it to first appear in the published version of 'A Sacred Oath,'" the lawsuit added.

Mark Zaid, a lawyer who has previously defended government whistleblowers, is representing Esper. 

Updated at 9:35 p.m. 

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