Former Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper has filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that Pentagon officials are using the pre-publication review process to block key portions of his forthcoming memoir. In the suit, filed on November 28, attorneys for Esper say that “significant text” that is “crucial to telling important stories” is being “improperly withheld from publication…under the guise of classification.”
Among the relief requested, Esper is seeking an injunction preventing the Department of Defense from blocking the disputed text, as well as a declaration that Defense officials violated the Administrative Procedure Act as well as its own departmental rules governing pre-publication review. In a series of tweets announcing the suit, Esper's attorney, Mark Zaid, said Esper is the highest-ranking official ever to challenge the pre-publication review process in court.
Esper’s memoir, A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times is due to be published by HarperCollins in May 2022.
“As part of my lawful obligations and lifelong commitment to protecting national security, I submitted my manuscript to the Defense Department for review. 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 a statement.
In the complaint, Esper provides an in-depth look at the process that began in May of this year, including passages of an email Esper sent to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, outlining his concerns with the pre-publication review process.
“Some requested redactions 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 writes. “For me to redact or alter all of the items currently required by the [government] 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's suit comes after years of complaints about the pre-publication review process, and just days after the Knight Institute and the ACLU petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to take on a case that would challenge a system that Knight attorneys say "invites arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement by censors," with virtually no transparency, recourse, or accountability.
The suit also recalls the actions of former Trump national security advisor John Bolton, who proceeded to publish his bestselling memoir The Room Where It Happened without receiving an official clearance from the government. Bolton was later sued by the U.S. Department of Justice, which unsuccessfully sought to block publication, and later sought to attach Bolton’s earnings from the book.
In his defense, Bolton’s attorneys argued that political appointees in the Trump administration had improperly hijacked the review process to block publication of a book that might embarrass Trump. Bolton’s claims were later backed up in a letter from the official who conducted the review process and cleared Bolton’s book for publication only to see Bolton's official clearance held up by her superiors.
In January of this year, a federal judge greenlighted Bolton’s team to pursue evidence that political appointees had abused the review process. But in June, the DoJ abruptly dropped the case against Bolton, effectively ending the inquiry.
Esper joined the Trump administration in 2017 as Secretary of the Army, and later served as Secretary of Defense from June, 2019 until his firing by Trump after the November 2020 election. According to the catalog copy, Esper's "unvarnished and candid" memoir will address key moments in his brief but tumultuous tenure, and will reveal "shocking details" of "a White House bent on circumventing the Constitution for its own benefit."