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Former Defense Secretary Esper sues the Pentagon over book redactions

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing in July 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Greg Nash
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Secretary of Defense Mark Esper testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing in July 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Updated November 29, 2021 at 3:42 PM ET

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper has filed suit against the Pentagon, which he says has ordered him to redact portions of an "unvarnished and candid memoir" that he hopes to publish about his days in the Trump White House.

Esper, who was fired by then-President Donald Trump after the November 2020 election, says the Department of Defense, which he led for nearly 16 months, had "arbitrarily" redacted the manuscript for the book, A Sacred Oath.

"Significant text is being improperly withheld from publication ... under the guise of classification," claims the lawsuit filed Sunday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, as reported by The New York Times. "The withheld text is crucial to telling important stories discussed in the manuscript."

Balancing transparency and security

The lawsuit, obtained by NPR, describes Esper's short tenure leading the Defense Department as "an unprecedented time of civil unrest, public health crises, growing threats abroad, Pentagon transformation, and a White House seemingly bent on circumventing the Constitution."

Promotional copy on Amazon says the book will reveal "the shocking details of [Esper's] tumultuous tenure while serving in the Trump administration." The book is slated to be published in May by William Morrow.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told NPR in a statement that the department was aware of Esper's concerns. "As with all such reviews, the department takes seriously its obligation to balance national security with an author's narrative desire," he said, adding that since it is now a legal matter, there would be no further comment.

A high-level account of the Trump era

Esper was fired on Nov. 9, 2020, reportedly as a result of a number of policy differences — most notably his pushback on Trump's threats to use active-duty military personnel to respond to Black Lives Matter protests. Trump wrote in a tweet that Esper had been "terminated."

In a tweet on Sunday, Esper's lawyer, Mark Zaid, said that the former secretary of defense is the "highest-ranking official to ever sue" to challenge such redactions.

In an email to NPR, Zaid added that it was "highly unusual for someone as high as a cabinet official to not have sufficient opportunities to discuss any expressed [government] concerns."

The approval process

The suit says that Esper submitted the manuscript last May and that when he received a response last month, it contained redactions to parts of 60 pages.

The suit says that Esper emailed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin this month after he was told "to not quote former President Trump and others in meetings [and] to not describe conversations between the former president and me, and to not use certain verbs or nouns when describing historical events."

Esper is bound by secrecy rules to give the Pentagon a first look at any potentially sensitive manuscript.

"For nearly six months, I patiently followed the formal process, only to have my unclassified manuscript arbitrarily redacted without clearly being told why," Esper said in his statement, adding that he was disappointed with the current administration for what he considers an infringement on his constitutional rights.

Book disputes like Esper's date back decades, with former officials at odds with current administrations balancing transparency and national security. In some cases, the books have gone on to publication despite objections, like in the case of former national security adviser John Bolton.

NPR national security correspondent Tom Bowman contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 28, 2021 at 10:00 PM MST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin as the secretary of state.
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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.