Michael Hiltzik

Did Los Alamos fire a researcher for questioning U.S. nuclear doctrine?

James Doyle says he was fired by Los Alamos for calling for an end to nuclear weapons

Los Alamos may be a government laboratory with lots of classified secrets, but it also guarantees its researchers intellectual freedom on a par with that enjoyed by university professors. Political scientist James Doyle says that freedom was violated when he was fired last month after questioning U.S. nuclear weapons doctrine in a published article.

The New Mexico lab maintains that Doyle, a 17-year veteran of Los Alamos, wasn't fired, but laid off "due to the lack of available or anticipated funding in his area of expertise." (Virtually all the lab's funding comes from congressional appropriations.) According to an email from lab spokesman Kevin Roark, "the separation was unrelated to his publications or professional writings."

But the lab has also asserted that Doyle's article contained classified information he wasn't authorized to divulge. It has classified the article itself, so its voluminous paperwork on the case doesn't even refer to the piece by name, and Doyle and his attorney, Mark Zaid, can't discuss it with one another. (But you can read it here, on the website of Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, where it was published originally.)

Doyle's case was laid out in a lengthy piece by Douglas Birch of the Center for Public Integrity. A follow-up appears in the current issue of Science. Zaid says he'll be appealing Doyle's termination to the secretary of Energy and bringing it before other Washington officials who investigate allegations of retaliations against whistleblowers. So you can expect to hear more about it.

We've asked for a comment from the University of California, which is a major partner in the consortium that manages Los Alamos for the government and has three representatives on its board, including the board chairman, UC Regent Norman J. Pattiz, but haven't received an answer.

Zaid, who says he represents other government whistleblowers, doesn't buy the lab's explanation. "It's very easy for a government agency to independently justify any personnel action against someone," he told us. But he questions how "someone with Doyle's expertise, long-standing history with the lab, and stellar personal evaluations can suddenly be [laid off] as 'non-essential.'"

The 8,100-word article at the center of the case appeared in Survival in February 2013 under the title, "Why Eliminate Nuclear Weapons?" Written on Doyle's own time and presented explicitly as the author's own views, it's a sober and closely argued analysis of the postwar doctrine of "deterrence."

Doyle, an expert in nuclear politics, challenges the received wisdom that the theory of mutually assured destruction, and world leaders' awareness of the horrific consequences of nuclear war, are responsible for the absence of great-power warfare for more than a half-century--in other words, that nuclear weapons are a force for stability. His conclusion is that the risks of nuclear stockpiles far outweigh their stabilizing influence, which in any event is a myth. 

On the surface, Doyle's argument that "nuclear weapons should be eliminated" parallels the Obama administration's stated goal of "a world without nuclear weapons." But it's at odds with the defining mission of Los Alamos, which is devoted to weapons development. Los Alamos has been sensitive about safeguarding that mission since the end of World War II. And that, Doyle maintains, accounts for its harsh reaction to his article.

Doyle says he bent over backwards to have the piece vetted for classified information before publication. (A mandate to protect national security is a specific limitation on intellectual freedom at Los Alamos, lab regulations say.) According to an internal Los Alamos investigation cited by the Center for Public Integrity, several classification experts at the lab examined Doyle's paper and concluded nothing in it was a problem.

After its publication, however, their rulings were overturned by higher-ups, possibly acting after an inquiry came down from an unidentified congressional staff member. Doyle was briefly suspended without pay, his security clearances were lifted, his earlier articles were scrutinized and his home computer was searched. Finally, on July 8, he was laid off.

Security experts queried by Science are appalled: "It sends a chilling message not just to employees, but also those beyond the lab, that their ability to work on topics subject to classification could be restricted if they become too critical of policies that the lab holds dear," the journal was told by Frank von Hippel, a physicist at Princeton.  

Los Alamos hasn't indicated what material in the article was supposedly secret, and Zaid says he doesn't know. The technicalities of government secrecy notwithstanding, it's impossible to pinpoint anything in the piece that might qualify--it's based almost entirely on public sources, reasoned analysis, and the author's opinion. The Center for Public Integrity observes that here or there Doyle may refer to facts that haven't been officially acknowledged by the U.S. government, such as that Israel is a nuclear power, but that's hardly tantamount to divulging a U.S. government secret.

The internal investigation did find that "classification guidance" for researchers at Los Alamos is a mess. The rules are hopelessly "vague and confusing" and lack "consistency and transparency," the investigation found. In this case, four officials ruled that Doyle's article was clean, and two later decided that it contained classified materials. "How many...opinions is a LANL staff member expected to obtain before he/she believes the result?" asked the investigator, David Clark.

Although Clark found "no evidence of a violation of intellectual freedom," plainly the confusion and inconsistencies can only lead to suspicions that classification decisions are taken for political purposes or, as in this case, for retaliation.

Clark's findings and other elements of the affair point to several obvious remedies. Doyle should be reinstated. Los Alamos should codify its classification system so its researchers have clear guidance and the murky rules can't be used to punish and retaliate.

And perhaps most important, Doyle's analysis should be heeded. The U.S. government's nuclear doctrine must be updated to the 21st century. Mutually assured deterrence doesn't work against the nonstate groups that pose the greatest threat to national security. More than ever, a world awash with nuclear weapons is in peril.

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