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DOE Handling of Whistleblower Case Leaves Much To Be Desired

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Yesterday, the Project On Government Oversight was joined by seventeen concerned organizations and individuals in submitting a letter to the Department of Energy (DOE) highlighting concerns with how DOE has handled the case of Dr. James Doyle. The letter to Secretary Ernest Moniz and Inspector General (IG) Gregory Friedman expresses our disappointment that Dr. Moniz declined to take up Dr. Doyle’s Petition for Secretarial Review, thereby declining to investigate the allegations that DOE is using classification procedures to quell the opinions of its employees. The letter goes on to urge IG Friedman to carefully investigate Dr. Doyle’s termination—which followed his filing of these allegations—as well as the DOE’s whistleblower protection procedures.

Dr. Doyle, a 17-year contract employee with the Los Alamos National Security, LLC (LANS), found himself stripped of his security clearance and suspended from his job shortly after he published an article in early 2013 arguing the benefits of getting rid of nuclear weapon stockpiles. At the time of publication, Dr. Doyle was working at the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory (LANL), a lab in the DOE’s network. However, he researched and wrote the article on his own time and submitted it as an individual rather than as a DOE employee, clearly emphasizing that his opinions were his own and did not represent those of LANL or the U.S. government. Prior to submitting the article for publication, Dr. Doyle had it reviewed by a classification analyst at LANS to make sure it did not contain classified information, the standard DOE procedure when publishing such an article. The analyst formally cleared the article for public dissemination. Dr. Doyle went a step further, voluntarily meeting with the director of the Los Alamos National Security Office, to discuss the article. No one at this meeting raised any concerns about the classification of materials within the article. Satisfied that he had acted in accordance with LANL standard practice, he went ahead with publication.

Much to his bewilderment, Dr. Doyle soon found himself the subject of an internal investigation centered on the article. Just days after the article ran, two members of LANL’s Security Inquiries Team confronted Dr. Doyle and accused him of publishing classified information in the article. Dr. Doyle was understandably confused, as he had already cleared the article as required with the lab’s security authorities. Over the course of the investigation, lab officials searched his personal computer, retroactively classified his article, suspended his security clearance and suspended all work-related travel.

Dr. Doyle objected to this treatment, filing a complaint alleging that lab officials were retaliating against the content of his article, which expressed opinions that were unpopular at the Lab. Dr. Doyle alleged that the retroactive classifications were a deliberate misapplication of DOE’s standards, meant to intimidate him. After filing this complaint, Dr. Doyle was terminated from his position with LANS. The DOE maintains that Dr. Doyle’s termination was unrelated to the article or to his push-back against its retroactive classification. Rather, the DOE claims that his termination was the result of a “reduction in force” due to budget cuts. However, in Dr. Doyle’s appeal, his lawyer approximates that the odds that Dr. Doyle would be the only person out of his 50-person working group to be terminated for budget cuts is around 2 percent.

The arbitrary nature of DOE’s classification procedures and standards is troubling, considering the sensitive nature of the information it handles. However, that is just a small part of the problem if the DOE is using classification to quell dissenting voices and termination to get rid of whistleblowers who point this practice out. DOE denied Dr. Doyle’s original complaint, but he appealed the allegations and his termination. After a string of denials and appeals, Dr. Doyle’s attorney submitted a Petition for Secretarial Review to Secretary Moniz on August 20, 2014. Unfortunately, the Secretary refused to take up the petition for review. Instead, he asked the Office of the Inspector General to determine whether Dr. Doyle’s termination was due to the opinions expressed in his article, rather than because of budget cuts. We are hopeful that through this investigation, Dr. Doyle will be able to get some respite from this ongoing saga.

And in an exciting turn of events, the DOE has assured the Federation of American Scientists that it will undertake a review of the classification procedures and standards at the heart of this matter. If Dr. Doyle’s situation has made anything abundantly clear, it’s that such a review is clearly needed and long overdue.

By: Elizabeth "Liz" Hempowicz
Policy Counsel, POGO

Photograph of Elizabeth Liz Hempowicz is Policy Counsel for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Whistleblower Protections

Related Content: Nuclear Weapons Complex Oversight, Los Alamos National Lab, Overclassification

Authors: Elizabeth "Liz" Hempowicz

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