After controversial firing, ex-LANL employee looking to rebuild career

September 25, 2016 GMT

A year after settling a whistleblower complaint that created a stir at Los Alamos National Laboratory and reverberated across the country, political scientist James Doyle is still looking for a job.

Doyle spent his career trying to prevent the buildup of nuclear weapons. While working at the lab, he wrote a magazine article in February 2013 advocating for a world free of nuclear arsenals. His supervisors belatedly told him his writings revealed classified information and his career began a nosedive.

The year after Doyle wrote his article, the laboratory stripped him of some of his security clearances. Then it laid off Doyle about the time the U.S. Department of Energy was reviewing a whistleblower complaint he had filed. Doyle had said the lab’s claim that he disclosed classified information was retribution for his article arguing against nuclear weaponry.

But after all that, Doyle now says he does not believe the lab ousted him because of the article and that he accepts the lab’s stated reason for his termination in July 2014: lack of funding.

Doyle’s dismissal was an explosive news story, generating headlines, charges and counter-charges. He was left to deal with the fallout, but now, he says, his case against the lab is history as he tries to find employment.

“I have no ongoing grievances with the laboratory whatsoever,” Doyle said in an interview last week.

He has tried to strike a conciliatory tone with the lab as he also attempts to make a living. “I need full-time employment,” he said. “It’s hard to make ends meet.”

At 57, Doyle said his budget is tight because he is helping two daughters through college and is preparing to do the same for a third daughter, who’s in high school.

Doyle settled his whistleblower complaint with Los Alamos National Security, the private contractor that runs the sprawling Department of Energy laboratory. He said he cannot discuss the terms.

The settlement ended his two-year ordeal that began when the international journal Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, published Doyle’s article that asked what some called a provocative question: “Why eliminate nuclear weapons?”

Doyle questioned the Cold War practice of building up the U.S. nuclear arsenal to protect the country. His stand was nothing revolutionary for Santa Fe, where he lives, but it was a viewpoint that he said challenged the lab’s pro-nuclear weapons philosophy.

In his article, Doyle cited President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech in Prague to buttress his own point. “Obama, and others who seek a world without nuclear weapons, are right,” Doyle wrote. “Eliminating nuclear weapons is profoundly in the national-security interest of the United States and its allies and friends. Without major progress towards the elimination of nuclear arms, moreover, it is unlikely that the world will be able to avoid nuclear use for a prolonged period or respond adequately to security challenges related to climate change, resource scarcity and environmental degradation.”

Doyle had worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory since 1997 as a nuclear security specialist in the lab’s nonproliferation division. A younger Doyle might have never imagined he’d spend nearly 17 years employed at the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Doyle recalls participating in the duck-and-cover drills that came to represent the fear created by the Cold War. In 1979, while studying as an undergraduate at Hobart College in New York, he read an article by theoretical physicist Sidney Drell. Doyle said it made him realize the nation’s security relied upon a nuclear arsenal capable of killing millions.

“‘Wow, this is the concept we have to protect ourselves?’” Doyle recalls thinking. “It just blew my mind.”

In 1980, he found himself among some million people who gathered in New York City’s Central Park to demonstrate for the end of nuclear weapons. He turned his youthful activism into a career “addressing the real issues,” he said.

That included working for a Department of Energy program to help prevent nuclear weapons scattered across the world from getting into the hands of criminals and terrorists. Then, in 1997, he continued the threat-reduction work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, focusing on projects such as verifying that nuclear arms treaties were being carried out as promised.

“That felt really positive for me — that I was doing something really important for the nation’s security and the security of the world,” Doyle said.

But Doyle’s idealism about a nuclear-free world collided with the lab’s culture. Though he wrote the 2013 article on personal time, Doyle later said he still cleared it with the lab to make sure he did not disclose classified information.

Lab officials, Doyle had said, initially did not object to the article. But after its publication, his bosses changed course, saying he had disclosed classified material.

Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, said it was “highly unethical of the lab to fire him in the first place, and they were stomping on his right to free speech because he wasn’t stomping for the party line.

“His study was retroactively classified and the lab could do that because of just one word that he used,” Coghlan said. “And that word is ‘Israel.’ He listed Israel among the known nuclear weapons powers — didn’t single Israel out, just, again, mentioned the word Israel. So it goes to show just how ridiculous the nuclear weapons policies are about the use of classification. That’s kind of the worst-kept secret in the world — that Israel has nuclear weapons.”

Kevin Roark, spokesman for Los Alamos National Laboratory, said the lab could not comment on Doyle’s case. But Roark in 2014 told The Los Angeles Times the lab laid off Doyle due to “lack of anticipated funding in his area of expertise.”

That was around the time Doyle had been filing whistleblower complaints with the Department of Energy.

In a September 2014 letter dismissing Doyle’s complaints, Poli Marmolejos, the Department of Energy’s director of the Office of Hearings and Appeals, wrote that Doyle did not demonstrate that the classification officer for Los Alamos National Laboratory, Dan Gerth, “made an ‘arbitrary or capricious exercise of power’ ” in ruling that Doyle published classified information.

“In our view, a debatable assertion that an official misapplied classification guidance does not rise to the level of disclosing a ‘substantial violation’ of a law, rule or regulation,” the letter says. “Based on this definition, we conclude that [Doyle] has not sufficiently alleged a claim of abuse of authority.”

Marmolejos wrote that the case “does not involve ‘improperly classified’ information” but pledged that the department would investigate Doyle’s termination by its contractor, Los Alamos National Security.

“That said, the department’s senior leadership takes the issue you raise seriously, and will not tolerate retaliation or dismissals of employees or contractors for the views expressed in scholarly publications. Accordingly, Under Secretary for Nuclear Security Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, USAF (Ret) has written to the Department’s Inspector General to request an examination into whether Mr. Doyle’s termination resulted, in whole or in part, from the publication of his article in question or the views expressed in it.”

A spokesman for the Department of Energy’s inspector general last week did not return a request for comment on the referral after fielding questions about the case. A spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration on Friday said in an email the agency “cannot comment” on Doyle’s case.

Doyle said the inspector general never launched an investigation and called Marmolejos’ statement “a pledge made by the [Department of Energy] secretary that was reneged upon.”

Now, Doyle says, he’s looking for full-time employment. His goal is to continue his nonproliferation work in a more “activist role.”

Last year, the Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit that promotes the elimination of nuclear weapons, awarded Doyle a grant, and he’s been consulting on other projects. Doyle does not want to leave Santa Fe. But he said he might have to chase any job offers outside the state where his career once flourished, then flamed out.

Contact Justin Horwath at 505-986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com.