James E. Doyle filed an appeal last month with the US secretary of energy, seeking redress for being punished by his recent employer, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, over an article that Doyle published in the February–March 2013 issue of Survival. My colleague Mark Fitzpatrick has already commented on the case for this blog; among other words of praise, he called Doyle’s essay the ‘best Survival article with which I have been associated’. (Mark, it should be noted, is a Survival contributing editor who has been associated over the past nine years, as author or commissioning editor, with many of the journal’s articles.)

The story, first reported by Douglas Birch of the Center for Public Integrity, is slightly complicated – but only slightly. Doyle served for 17 years as a political scientist with security clearance on contract to Los Alamos. In 2012 he submitted his 8,000-word article, ‘Why Abolish Nuclear Weapons?’ via Mark to Survival. Mark strongly recommended publication, and for good reason. Doyle’s piece expertly challenges what he considers the mythology of how well nuclear deterrence worked in the Cold War: he sees a combination of dumb luck, some skilled diplomacy and the fact that the Soviets never intended to attack Western Europe in the first place as sufficient explanation for the avoidance of superpower war. And he warns that complacency about how deterrence will function in the future could prove catastrophic. ‘Nuclear deterrence’, he writes, ‘is a complex, tightly coupled system. It is vulnerable to the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of human error, mechanical failure and accident. If it fails, as nearly all such systems eventually do, it is likely to fail catastrophically and cause unprecedented human suffering.’

Per common practice, Doyle vetted his article before publication with a classification expert at Los Alamos. Shortly after the article appeared online and in print, however, the lab’s classification office reviewed the issue and decided to classify it as secret. He was required to hand over to security officers all of his published work, plus his home computer, and in the course of disputing the investigation his pay was docked, and his security clearance not renewed. Finally, two months ago, he lost his job – the lab claims this was a normal layoff unrelated to the article – a coincidence that he was the only person in his 50-person section who became excess to requirements. The many outside scientists and arms-control experts, including former officials in the Obama administration, who have rallied to his cause don’t believe it.

From my perspective as editor, the saga provokes a number of reactions. Firstly, there is sadness that such an excellent contribution to the journal has caused its author such deep, and undeserved, trouble. Secondly, there is the reminder that the United States government is a very big place. Doyle lost his job for writing an eloquent and detailed defence of the nuclear policies of Barack Obama, who happens to be the elected chief executive of the executive branch of government that first investigated and then fired him. The Center for Public Integrity reporting indicates that a staffer of the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee first objected to and raised secrecy issues regarding the essay. There are close connections between the lab and Congress, which in Republican hands is hostile to the abolition agenda (choosing to ignore the irony that conservative patron saint Ronald Reagan was the first serious White House advocate of nuclear abolition) and of course to President Obama as well. In any event, the whole affair should be a corrective to those who imagine that the United States government is a unitary actor operating at the whim of the president.

The third reaction requires some unpacking, because it encompasses Doyle’s Kafkaesque ordeal of being investigated, having his article classified after publication when he had followed the rules for vetting before publication, losing his job and his livelihood – as well as the general implications for free, open and creative debate in a government-sponsored national security community that desperately needs such debate. The classification of this article means that a US government employee in possession of the February–March 2013 issue of Survival is in violation of US national security law, and could be punished for it. (Whether the law in this case would be enforced is another matter, but the Doyle affair illustrates how arbitrary such enforcement can be.)

The finding that ‘Why Abolish Nuclear Weapons?’ contains classified secrets is ludicrous. Although Doyle himself cannot discuss or even acknowledge the article (because it’s classified), outside experts have scoured the piece trying to find the tiniest shred of a fact that is not firmly established in the public record. It contains a short account of NATO’s 1983 Able Archer exercise, which some in Moscow interpreted as preparation of a real attack, entailing miscalculations that might have triggered a nuclear war. But nothing in this account has not been covered in many published articles and books over the subsequent three decades.

The piece also analyses the implications of Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. Anyone with a passing knowledge of international affairs knows about these weapons. Perhaps Doyle has seen secret intelligence confirming this universally accepted fact. So too, one assumes, had the former CIA director Robert Gates when, in 2006 during his public confirmation hearing to become President Bush’s secretary of defense, he stated in terms both offhand and unequivocal that Israel is a nuclear-weapons state.

It is obvious that the real reason for Doyle being investigated and fired is not that he revealed secrets, but that he advocated nuclear disarmament. This constitutes a tragedy for Doyle, and a problem for the rest of us. I mentioned before that the US government is a big place – it is also the engine and locus of a vast portion of American research and analysis on foreign policy and national security. This can be positive in many ways. The US stands apart for the flow of scholars in both directions between government employment and academia, including think tanks, a process that no doubt enriches knowledge in both spheres. But it is also a situation that – for understandable and perhaps inevitable reasons of career protection – generates a palpable climate of conformity. Such conformity was a factor in the intellectual preparation of some big disasters in US foreign policy, including Vietnam and Iraq. (Regarding the latter, by the way, I would not exempt myself from criticism.)

The classification system, moreover, is notoriously overused as a tool not just for protecting legitimate secrets but also for illegitimate censorship. ‘Why Abolish Nuclear Weapons?’ is, as far as I know, the only Survival article to have been classified by an agency of the US government. There is room for debate on the wisdom and feasibility of nuclear abolition, but before joining that debate, Doyle’s article is required reading. Just don’t get caught.

Dana H. Allin is Editor of Survival and Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs at the IISS.

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