Read our COVID-19 research and news.

James Doyle (right) in 2012 at a nuclear policy conference at the University of California, San Diego, sponsored by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. With Doyle are Miles Pomper (left) and Duyeon Kim.

James Doyle (right) in 2012 at a nuclear policy conference at the University of California, San Diego, sponsored by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. With Doyle are Miles Pomper (left) and Duyeon Kim.

Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

Updated: Firing of Los Alamos political scientist spurs criticism

Political scientist James Doyle had spent almost 2 decades working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) on nonproliferation and nuclear security issues when he decided to write a scholarly article questioning the dogma of nuclear deterrence. Suspecting that his bosses at the Department of Energy (DOE) weapons lab in New Mexico might not agree with his analysis, Doyle researched and wrote the article in his free time and included a disclaimer saying the views were his own. And just to be safe, he got a lab colleague steeped in classification reviews to vet the article before he submitted it to a journal.

The 27-page article—“Why Eliminate Nuclear Weapons?”—was published in the February-March 2013 issue of Survival: Global Politics and Strategy. And that’s when Doyle’s professional life was suddenly turned upside down.

Within days of publication, congressional staff asked lab officials whether the article contained classified information. A week later, the head of the lab’s classification office decided that it did—a decision later backed by DOE. Doyle soon lost his top-level security clearance, and he says he became persona non grata among his co-workers after accusing lab officials of retaliation and impinging on his intellectual freedom. Those complaints were dismissed, and last week, after 17 years at the weapons lab, Doyle was laid off—the only victim within his 50-person group of what lab officials told him was a reduction in force due to budget cuts.

The reasons behind Doyle’s termination, first reported by the Center for Public Integrity, an investigative news service based in Washington, D.C., may never be clear. The lab’s official statement says “we do not publicly discuss the specifics of personnel matters. Likewise, it would be inappropriate to discuss specifics surrounding security classification.” A spokesperson for the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives says a staffer there only inquired about classification issues and did not raise objections to the article’s policy positions.

Many outside arms control specialists are skeptical and believe Doyle’s downfall is the result of his airing of views that are unpopular among those opposing disarmament, including some of the panel’s Republican leaders and staff. Doyle himself believes the lab fired him because it decided he “was problematic and someone who had committed some type of misconduct.”

Amid the murky circumstances, many nuclear security experts are sharply criticizing the lab’s actions. “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,” says Frank von Hippel, a physicist at Princeton University. “It’s a very disturbing situation,” adds Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. “DOE leadership needs to reverse this decision.”

An in-house critic

Doyle’s article opens with President Barack Obama’s 2009 promise that the United States will “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” It goes on to argue that nuclear deterrence is not effective and that nuclear weapons should be eliminated for a host of political, military, humanitarian, and environmental reasons.

Doyle’s arguments are squarely in the mainstream of nuclear security debates, says George Perkovich, an arms control specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. “The only thing unusual about [the article] was that it came from somebody at a weapons lab,” which typically touts the merits of nuclear deterrence, he says. Nor does it represent a change of heart for Doyle, who until his dismissal was one of the few political scientists at a 10,000-person laboratory dedicated to maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile. “I probably decided that nuclear weapons didn’t make sense by the age of 21,” says Doyle, now 55.

Despite his personal beliefs, Doyle has spent most of his career working on nuclear issues. After earning a master’s degree in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh, where he grew up, he came to Washington, D.C., in 1987 to take a job with a defense contractor. In the mid-1990s he helped draft a U.S. government plan to track and safeguard nuclear material in the former Soviet Union. Upon completing his Ph.D. in 1997 at the University of Virginia, he was invited to Los Alamos as a postdoc by people he had met who were charged with helping implement that plan. Within a year he was hired to work on nonproliferation issues.

“I thought working at Los Alamos full-time would be really exciting,” he explains. “I was also ready to move my family out of the relative bustle of the D.C. area and to a quieter place.”

Over the past decade, Doyle has published numerous papers, opinion pieces, and a textbook, as well as spoken at conferences, without causing a stir. His Survival article, however, caught the eye of a staffer on the House Armed Services Committee. The staffer was concerned that it contained classified information and asked lab officials if it had been cleared for publication, according to a committee spokesperson.

Soon after that inquiry, lab managers asked Doyle for copies of his other articles; he gave them about 20 publications. Security officials told him that the article contained classified material and later searched his office and home computers for copies. Doyle says he thought he had followed the proper rules for prior review of articles not intended as official lab publications. “I was confident I knew where the lines were drawn.”

Even so, Doyle, who describes himself as “cautious,” took an extra step. Before submitting the article, he also had received approval from a classification analyst, Diana Hollis, who he called “the subject matter expert for national security information, who had done a number of similar reviews.” Hollis is one of dozens of lab employees designated to help out with classification reviews—a job that Doyle himself has performed many times.

But Daniel Gerth, the lab’s chief classification officer, ultimately decided to classify the article, despite disagreement among lower ranking staff about whether it contained classified information. In a Catch-22, neither lab officials nor Doyle will discuss the paper, which is still on Survival’s website, because it is now classified. Reviews by lab officials backed the classification decision. But one, by David Clark of the lab’s research integrity office, concluded that the lab’s classification rules were “vague and confusing,” that implementation lacked “consistency and transparency,” and confirmed that reviewing officials had, in good faith, disagreed on whether Doyle disclosed secrets.

Classification conundrum

One problem is that the lab has traditionally followed a different review process for articles like Doyle’s than for articles carrying the lab’s imprimatur. For articles by those not claiming to represent the lab, approval from “derivative classifiers” like Hollis was generally considered sufficient to make sure that the author wasn’t spilling any nuclear beans.

In contrast, drafts of official lab publications typically trigger a two-part review. In addition to looking for secrets, officials may also weigh the overall content to determine whether it is consistent with lab policy positions. As Doyle explains, “in theory, management would have the option of saying, ‘There’s nothing classified in here, but we think your article needs to be more balanced.’ ” That process could take much longer, and, to Doyle’s mind, was likely to be more onerous: “I had reason to believe it would have been difficult,” he says.

That bifurcated system may have contributed to Doyle’s confusion, Clark said. “How many [derivative classifier] opinions is a LANL staff member expected to obtain before he/she believes the result?” Clark asked rhetorically in his September 2013 report.

The solution, Clark says, is a change in existing policy to make clear that employees are, in effect, always on the clock when writing for outside publications. “[W]hen an author is clearly identified as an employee of LANL, then the individual is considered a representative of the US Government,” Clark writes. The type of disclaimer used by Doyle and countless others is meaningless, Clark argues, because the public is not able to make the necessary distinction. Quoting Gerth without naming him, Clark writes approvingly about his opinion that “[w]hile a paper may not express a LANL or US Government opinion, if the author is clearly identified as an employee of LANL, it is inferred to express the knowledge gained as a cleared Government employee.”

With respect to classification, outside experts—including several who have handled similar classified material—say they see nothing problematic in Doyle’s paper. But they speculate that two sections might have caught the attention of classification officers. One lists Israel as possessing nuclear weapons, which the United States has never officially confirmed. The other discusses documents related to a Cold War misunderstanding that some historians believe could have led to nuclear war.

Siegfried Hecker, who created a Center for National Security Studies at Los Alamos that incorporated the work of nontechnical experts like Doyle after becoming lab director in 1986, thinks that lab officials overreacted. “Is it typical to fire someone who has made a classification mistake?” Hecker says. “The answer is no.”

Hecker stepped down as director in 1997 and left the lab in 2005. But he and others worry that Los Alamos may be turning its back on contributions from political scientists like Doyle, who can bring a different perspective to its work. “I think his writing about these issues is beneficial to both the laboratory and the country,” says Hecker, a professor of engineering and management science at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “The question is whether Los Alamos, in today’s world, still values their input.”

Others believe Doyle got caught in the increasingly intense political crossfire over the future of the U.S. nuclear stockpile and the role of the DOE weapons laboratories. Massive cost overruns, technical glitches, and management missteps have plagued the nuclear weapons programs in recent years and delayed construction of expensive facilities at Los Alamos and elsewhere. An article questioning the need for nuclear weapons, say some weapons experts, could have been seen as giving those critics more ammunition. “He’s a pawn in this fight,” Perkovich believes.

Doyle’s boss denies that he was fired as a result of the article. “I would like to assure you that this is not the case,” wrote division leader Michael Baker on 7 August, Doyle’s last day, in an e-mail to lab staff obtained by Science. Baker urges employees to continue publishing “thoughtful, articulate and technically sound work in the public domain, to the extent we can do so within laboratory policy.”

But Doyle hears a different take-home message in Baker’s memo, which does not mention him by name. When congressional staff complained, Doyle argues, “What the lab could have said to the committee was, ‘We may not agree with Dr. Doyle’s article, but we stand by the right of our employees to express their opinion.’ That was certainly an option. But they chose not to take it. What the lab is really saying is that, if you work for the federal government or for a contractor, you might have restrictions on freedom of expression that haven’t been spelled out to you.”

*Update, 15 August, 11:27 a.m.:

After this article appeared, Los Alamos officials sent ScienceInsider the following statement:
"James Doyle's separation from Los Alamos National Laboratory was a layoff due to the lack of available or anticipated funding in his area of expertise.  The separation was unrelated to his publications or professional writings.
"Laboratory policies fully support intellectual freedom and the publication of professional writing and scientific findings related to the work of the Laboratory, with certain restrictions for security.
"Over the past 18 months, the laboratory has had several small layoffs due to unavailable funding."

With reporting by David Malakoff.

*For the print version, see this week's issue of Science.