Marine whistleblower Franz Gayl: Security clearance removal is retaliation

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 12:53 AM

Franz Gayl made a name for himself a few years ago as a Marine Corps whistleblower, a civilian scientist who helped push the Pentagon to shift its Iraqi weapons strategy. Senators called him a hero for disclosures that helped get heavily armored vehicles known as MRAPs to the battlefield.

But a few weeks ago, Gayl found himself booted from a room where confidential materials are handled and stripped of his security clearance. His superiors accused him of "a disregard for regulations, a pattern of poor judgment and intentional misconduct" - behavior that they said "indicates you are unreliable and untrustworthy."

Gayl's alleged offense - described in official documents - was inserting a USB device into a computer containing classified information twice in 2008 and then failing to turn over the device to a supervisor. They first raised this concern in March, and no security leaks have been alleged.

Gayl and some former colleagues say that these charges were trumped up, the culmination of a three-year pattern of retaliation by the Corps' leadership for the embarrassment that he caused and his continued efforts to hold officials accountable for ignoring an urgent request for help by soldiers under fire.

His offense, Gayl says, is continuing to say "that Marines did not take care of Marines in harm's way," a sacrilege inside a service that prides itself on protecting individual soldiers.

Last week, his confrontation accelerated. The Corps notified him that without proper clearances, he no longer qualified to serve as a science adviser in its plans and policy branch. "I am proposing to suspend you indefinitely from pay and from your position," wrote Col. James D. Gass, his branch chief.

But the proposed suspension was lifted by Gass hours after a reporter asked questions about Gayl's case, e-mails show. A Marine spokesman, Maj. Carl Redding Jr., cited privacy protections in explaining why he could not address the allegations against Gayl. But he said, "Whatever change you may be aware of has nothing to do with your inquiry."

Gayl and his supporters say the corps' treatment of him is vengeance. The firing threat came, he has said in a formal complaint to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, after years of demeaning taunts from a supervisor, several unfavorable alterations to his job description and an unsuccessful attempt to demote him.

"It is payback, for them to throw Franz under the bus," said retired Marine Col. Phil Harmon, who ran the service's Joint Combat Assessment Teams studying enemy tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan until 2009. He recalled Gayl's efforts to obtain lifesaving equipment. It demonstrates, Harmon said, that civilian leadership in the Marines "has gone sour."

Science booster

A plainspoken Minnesotan who joined the Corps in high school and later got a space science degree, Gayl, 53, always has been a bit of a scientific bomb thrower. Last summer, he briefly advocated using an explosive to shut off gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico. He has long pressed the Corps to boost its scientific competence.

Gen. James F. Amos, the new commandant, in 2002 described Gayl as "a superstar for our Marine Corps for your entire career" when he retired as a major to work as a senior civilian scientific adviser.

Gayl's relations with his bosses were unblemished until he was dispatched to Camp Fallujah in late 2006, where he recalls being surrounded by the thumps of outgoing artillery and incoming mortars, as well as the constant chop of Sea Knight helicopters bearing "kids blown to bits."

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