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."

Gayl said he and his colleagues grew impatient about what they considered lackluster responses by Quantico-based Combat Development Command to requests for lifesaving gear. It felt as if the unit's soldiers were "essentially fighting their own war," without proper support.

He was particularly appalled when colleagues showed him a 2005 urgent request for 1,169 Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) troop carriers that had been squashed in Washington. Virtually everyone considered the MRAPs, coated with heavy armor and designed with a V-shaped bottom to deflect the force from implanted explosives, vastly superior to the lighter, flat-bottomed, armored Humvees then in use.

But MRAPs cost an average of $1 million each, compared to roughly $200,000 for an armored Humvee. According to those involved in the deliberations, some officers worried that the costly purchase and potential success of MRAPs would undermine support for two lighter troop and amphibious carriers at the heart of Marine planning for a decade.

Gen. Dennis Hejlik, who now commands Marine Forces in the Atlantic region, said in the 2005 request that the force cannot "continue to lose . . . serious and grave casualties . . . at current rates when a commercial off the shelf capability exists" to mitigate attacks. As an urgent battlefield request, his message was supposed to provoke an immediate response.

But the Corps did not embrace MRAPs until late the following year, after desperate officers at Camp Fallujah sidestepped the Combat Development Command and submitted a similar request directly to the Joint Staff, which enthusiastically approved it, according to documents and interviews.

When the Army and Marine Corps sought $5 billion for MRAPs in early 2007 - the down payment on a program that has cost $30 billion - they refused to take that amount out of existing programs and demanded supplemental funds. "The reality is that decisionmakers in the Pentagon's requirements system were not enthusiastic about any additional armor, much less heavy, expensive MRAPs," even though the vehicles would immediately save lives, three defense experts wrote in a study of the episode for the National Defense University in October 2009.

Redding, the Marine spokesman, said: "The Marine Corps adapted our practices and strategies to meet the everchanging threat of the enemy on the ground. Some of those changes came quickly and others in time."

Continued advocacy

Gayl's pursuit of battlefield needs endeared him to then-Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, his commander in Fallujah, who wrote in a performance appraisal that Gayl's "dedication and passion for design, development and delivery of technology solutions to our warfighting needs is matched by no one I know."

But after returning from Iraq in Feb. 2007 to his civilian job, Gayl's continued advocacy raised hackles. A briefing that he had prepared that month for the Pentagon's top research official was canceled after his superiors read a draft depicting "middle management" at Quantico as risk averse and too wedded to already-funded programs, causing "U.S. friendly and innocent Iraqi deaths and injuries."

It specifically mentioned the 2005 MRAP request. His superiors ordered him to destroy all copies and barred him from unapproved "outside" communication.

Gayl was unrelenting, however. He spoke out about the 2005 request, the MRAPs' virtues and the fact that no Marine had ever been held accountable for what he considered "criminal negligence" behind the delay. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has said that some of the resulting articles provoked him not only to make MRAPs the Pentagon's top acquisition priority but to initiate procurement reforms.

Explaining his alienation, Gayl said that "under normal circumstances, I would never disobey. I'm a Marine, absolutely. But the issues were much bigger. . . . If the rule doesn't help a Marine, I was going to come up with my own rule."

Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), who joined then-Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) in a 2007 letter warning the Corps not to punish Gayl for his disclosures, said in a statement this week that "in Congress, we depend on our military leaders to let us know what the troops in the field need, but when that process breaks down it's whistleblowers like Franz Gayl who bring serious problems to light."

Gayl says he may have provoked particular ire by pointing fingers at retiring commandant Gen. James T. Conway and Gen. James N. Mattis, who oversaw the Combat Development Command in 2005 and is now the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East.

Gayl blames Conway for misrepresenting the 2005 request in congressional testimony, and blames Mattis for poor management of the Corps' weapons-development efforts; he says that they jointly oversaw the retaliation against him, evidently seeing him as a disobedient "Peewee GS-15."

Some Marines who worked to get MRAPs to Iraq are upset by his treatment. "They called the artillery fire in on Franz, and they will quietly keep their jobs and continue doing what they are doing," said retired Marine Col. Gary Wilson, who helped prepare the 2005 request and was later injured in a roadside explosive attack.

Under investigation

The Corps' actions against Gayl are under investigation by the independent Special Counsel's office, which polices whistleblowing statutes. But under existing law, Gayl has no legal recourse to challenge the removal of his clearances, a circumstance that advocacy groups say illustrates the need for new protections.

"Until Congress provides credible rights, agencies can continue to purge national security whistleblowers like Franz at will," said Thomas Devine, Gayl's lawyer at the nonprofit Government Accountability Project.

A long-pending bill on Capitol Hill would outlaw clearance reprisals for national security whistleblowers and permit reviews by a new board. But it has been put off by intelligence community concerns, shared by many Republican lawmakers, that the protections will wind up encouraging new disclosures of sensitive information.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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