Federal Employee Gets Fired After Writing An Article Criticizing Nukes

For 17 years, James Doyle was a nuclear policy specialist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Then he wrote an article that made the case for getting rid of nuclear weapons. After that, his computer was seized, he was accused of releasing classified information, and then he was fired. What happened?

Top image: French Test, photo by James Vaughan

The article, "Why Eliminate Nuclear Weapons?," appeared in the journal Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, which is published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the UK. It's not exactly a household name, but the journal has been a publishing venue for prominent academics and policy wonks since it was founded in the Cold War (hence, its rather alarmist-sounding name).

Doyle's piece wasn't an anti-government rant, but a lengthy argument that nuclear weapons had lost their strategic utility and value as a deterrent, that getting rid of them would enhance international security, and that this was an ideal point in time to get serious about global disarmament. In fact, Doyle praised President Obama's vision:

Obama said in Prague that the elimination of nuclear weapons might not be achieved in his lifetime, but 2045 – 34 years from now, when Obama will be 84 – will mark the 100th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan. Three-and-a-half decades is time enough for the world to transition away from the ideology of nuclear deterrence and to dismantle the system of nuclear forces deployed in the name of national defense. Each passing year will bring the need to support Obama's vision of a world free of nuclear weapons more sharply into focus. The international community has the opportunity to honor the memory of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by eliminating nuclear weapons from the arsenals of the world within a century after they were unleashed.

This ain't radical stuff. There are plenty of people who disagree with Doyle, but bigger names than him—including Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara and Graham Allison—have called for working towards nuclear abolition now that the Cold War is over.

But, at the time, Doyle was working as a contractor at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which receives about $2 billion annually to support activities that include the research, design and development of nuclear weapons. Awkward.

Lab Rats

Federal Employee Gets Fired After Writing An Article Criticizing Nukes

The events leading up to Doyle's dismissal are chronicled in a new report by the government watchdog group, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI).

Doyle had written the article at home, in his spare time, so Los Alamos rules didn't require him to submit the article for classification review. But, "in the spirit of following best practice," he did so anyway. According to the CPI investigative report:

Another laboratory employee familiar with the controversy, who spoke without approval and so asked not to be named, said that Doyle's views upset management, but not the scientists and others who worked with him and who expect the labs to respect academic traditions of open inquiry.

"It's a well-argued opinion piece by a subject matter expert," the employee said. "A scientist can respect that. Los Alamos National Labs should not be political."

Doyle's article was published online February 1, 2013. Then, things got weird.

Five days later, his supervisor told him that senior managers wanted copies of all his publications—more than 100 articles he had written since joining the lab in 1997. The request had been made by someone at the House Armed Services Committee.

Nobody told Doyle who at the Committee had requested the information. But, as CPI notes:

It was a sensitive moment for an anti-nuclear message to emerge from within the lab. During this period, Los Alamos officials and their Republican supporters on the House Armed Services committee were trying to find the funds for a new $6.5 billion factory at Los Alamos for plutonium "pits," the baseball-sized spheres that form the core of most nuclear weapons.

Although the Obama administration had sought to defer the project's start, Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, who in 2012 chaired a strategic forces subcommittee, sponsored a successful amendment that year requiring construction of the factory by 2024 and authorizing $160 million to keep design work going. Obama signed the bill on Jan. 2, 2013, that included Turner's amendment, but it still lacked support from appropriators.

Later that day, Doyle was confronted by two members of a Security Inquiries Team who told him that his article contained classified information.

Then, on February 7, Doyle attended a meeting at the office of Daniel Gerth, the lab's chief classification officer. There, three "derivative" classifiers — experts who review documents for classified material — told Gerth that they had not found any secret information in the article. But Gerth overruled them and declared that the article was classified and tried to get it withdrawn from publication.

Federal Employee Gets Fired After Writing An Article Criticizing Nukes

Image via James Vaughn.

From there, things kept getting worse. Doyle had to surrender his home computer so that all traces of his work on the article could be expunged. He lost his high-level security clearance and was denied permission for any work-related travel.

Doyle spent the next several months protesting the retroactive classification of his article and his treatment by Los Alamos. He lodged several complaints with ethics officers at the lab and the Energy Department, without any success.

System Failure

Doyle was fired on July 8, 2014. Los Alamos said that he was being let go as part of a program of layoffs. Unsurprisingly, Doyle and others are skeptical:

Los Alamos officials did not respond to several requests for an interview with an official who could discuss the case. Derrick Robinson, a spokesman for the Energy agency's National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees Los Alamos, said he was seeking official comment. But none was received by press time.

Doyle's treatment has nonetheless already attracted criticism from former Obama appointees and from his editor at Survival...."It sure looks like he's being fired for supporting the President's policy," said Jon Wolfsthal, a special adviser on nuclear matters to Vice President Joseph Biden from 2009 to 2012 who knows Doyle.

"Nobody would go after this article on classification grounds unless they were pursuing a political agenda, and it is amazing to attack someone politically for writing an article in support of a policy of the president of the United States," said Matthew Bunn, a former White House official under President Clinton and now a nonproliferation expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

"The classification system, of course, is not supposed to be used for political purposes," Bunn said. "It is only to prohibit the release of information if it would damage the security of the U.S. And there's nothing in this article that could in any way damage the security of the United States."

Dana Allin, the editor of Survival, said in an interview he had heard that there was a reaction to Doyle's article at Los Alamos but not that any disciplinary measures were taken. "This was a think piece," Allin said. "This was driven by a keen understanding of concerns about nuclear deterrence. It's the kind of thing we publish all the time."

Doyle is now looking for work. "I pursued a career in national security with the motivation of improving the national security policy of my country," he said. "And there's nothing conflicting in advocating the elimination of nuclear weapons and maintaining the security of the United States."