For years, James Doyle worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a nuclear weapons monitor, looking at how well nations around the globe were honoring arms reduction treaties. He saw it as saving the world from itself — until the lab abruptly fired him in July.
The move, which the lab blamed on budget cuts, triggered an outcry in nuclear disarmament circles. Doyle himself is fighting the layoff, calling it retaliation over an academic article he wrote saying the U.S. should get rid of its nuclear stockpile rather than maintaining it, one of the lab’s central missions. The controversy has made Doyle a sort of cult figure among anti-nuke advocates.
Now, Doyle, a 55-year-old political scientist from Santa Fe, is taking his newfound fame, along with the reputation that he forged during his 17 years at the lab as an expert on nuclear nonproliferation, in a different direction, but with the same goal.
He plans to team with the nonprofit Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a Santa Fe-based nuclear watchdog group, to monitor U.S. progress on its global commitment to draw down nuclear weapons.
Specifically, Doyle aims to assess federal spending and policy on nonproliferation projects over time to measure whether the U.S. is keeping its promises in global treaties to reduce its arsenal, and to develop nonproliferation monitoring and verification technologies.
“That’s the side of the laboratory that I worked in, so it’s great,” Doyle said of his new mission. “Now I can be an advocate on the outside for the work at the lab that I really thought was valuable.”
But he frets that policymakers and leaders at the national labs don’t value that work as much as they do new production of replacement parts for nuclear weapons.
He intends to study whether that’s true and report his findings to Congress and the United Nations in hopes of influencing policy decisions involving nuclear defense priorities.
The nonprofit Ploughshares Fund, which advocates abolition of nuclear weapons, is financing the project.
Doyle is also fighting the U.S. Department of Energy over his dismissal from LANL. He contends his firing was in retaliation for his persistent challenges to the Energy Department’s classification of an article he’d written about nonproliferation, which the department’s monitors initially approved as declassified for publication, only to change their minds after its public release in an international journal.
As a result of the reclassification, the lab suspended Doyle for one day and stripped him of various high-level security clearances necessary to do his job, before ultimately firing him.
The lab told Doyle his dismissal was a routine layoff. The lab has declined to comment on the firing, citing its policy against publicly discussing personnel issues.
“My contention is that my termination was absolutely retaliation for not giving up on complaining about what I perceived to be impossible classification,” Doyle told The New Mexican. “If I had rolled over and let this go away a year ago, I’d still be working there.”
Instead, Doyle filed a whistleblower complaint against the department, claiming it had made a mistake by declaring his article classified.
Last month, the Energy Department notified Doyle that it had rejected his final appeal to have that complaint heard. However, the Energy Department’s response indicated it was launching an investigation into whether retaliation played a part in Doyle’s firing.
“The department’s senior leadership takes the issue you raise seriously, and will not tolerate retaliation or dismissal of employees or contractors for the views expressed in scholarly publications,” the Energy Department’s letter said.
The letter described steps the department was taking to initiate an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General “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.”
Doyle filed a new whistleblower complaint Oct. 6. Rather than focusing on the classification change, it challenges the lab’s explanation for his firing and accuses LANL of terminating him in retaliation for questioning the retroactive classification of his article. The complaint points out that Doyle was the only person laid off in his 50-person department.
“The timing alone renders this action in a suspicious light,” the complaint says.
According to the complaint, Doyle “was denied access to his computer files and literally escorted out of the building without any notice.”
When news of Doyle’s firing broke, Nuclear Watch New Mexico’s leaders were among the first to publicly offer words of support.
The Federation of American Scientists wrote to President Barack Obama’s Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, urging him to intervene on Doyle’s behalf and calling his termination an affront to free discussion and dissenting voices in policy discussions.
Landing Doyle has added to Nuclear Watch New Mexico’s cachet among nonproliferation circles. Already, the group plans to put his findings on display at a United Nations conference on arms reduction treaties next spring.
“He’s a rock star,” said Jay Coghlan, the group’s executive director.
In his new endeavor, Doyle says speaking his mind won’t be a problem.
“I’ll be a lot more free to weigh in with my opinions and the opinions of outside observers about whether the scope of these activities at the national laboratories are appropriate,” he said. “I’ll be less constrained by knowing a certain program manager or officials in Washington don’t think something has a lot of promise.”
The downside of monitoring nuclear weapons reduction from outside the lab establishment is the restricted access to data and scientists that were easily within reach when Doyle had security clearance. To overcome that, he said, “I hope my relationships pay off.”
Doyle plans to assess whether the Energy Department has invested enough in field testing remote monitoring, radiation detection and confirming that waste can be analyzed without opening containers, among other aspects of the U.S. commitment to weapons reduction.
Doyle and Nuclear Watch New Mexico have an ambitious schedule for completing the work and presenting it to Congress, with an eye on influencing federal spending on steps toward weapons reduction in fiscal year 2016. That would represent an about-face from the current budgeted agenda, which prioritizes stepped-up production of nuclear weapons components — with Los Alamos leading the way — while deep budget cuts are aimed at nonproliferation programs.
“We don’t want another study that’s just going to gather dust,” Coghlan said.
Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.