A tech-savvy Marine who made too much noise, helped save the lives of countless troops in Iraq, and paid with his career.
As he had every morning for years, on October 4, 2010, Franz Gayl woke up at five, fed his two Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and then walked down the street from his modest home at the end of a cul-de-sac in northern Virginia to wait for the bus to the Pentagon. Once there, Gayl swiped his badge, thanked the security guards, and proceeded down the vast corridors to an office of the B Ring and the Marine Corps’ Department of Plans, Policies and Operations. At almost exactly seven thirty, Gayl, a science adviser to the Marines, walked into his Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, a secured office in which military employees with high-level security clearances spend their days, and sat down at his desk, eager to get to work. Though Gayl had followed this routine for more than a decade, he still loved the exact minutia of it.
Then the day went sideways. His supervisor walked in and said, “Come with me, we’re going to see the general,” referring to the head of the department. With the general when Gayl arrived was a representative from human resources. He handed Gayl a letter. The subject heading: “SUSPENSION OF ACCESS TO CLASSIFIED INFORMATION.” As the others watched him, Gayl began reading.
“Credible information exists which raises serious questions as to your ability or intent to protect classified information,” the letter, from Marine headquarters, read. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS, had been investigating Gayl, and, “[b]ased on the forensic analysis contained within the report, it appears that on multiple occasions you used an unauthorized USB media flash device within the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), in violation of SCIF security requirements.” The letter didn’t specify what, if anything, was put on or taken off the flash drive. It concluded, “The culmination of the above demonstrates a disregard for regulations, a pattern of poor judgment, and intentional misconduct.”
Gayl was asked if he understood the charges. He said he did. He was led back to his SCIF, where he was given a few minutes to collect his belongings. He was brought down to the parking lot, where a car was already waiting. He was driven to Marine headquarters, where another general was waiting. Gayl was “read out” of the cascade of clearances he’d accrued over the years—top secret/SCI, top secret, secret, confidential.
Back in the car, his supervisor handed Gayl a letter notifying him that he was now on administrative leave, pending review. He was driven to the bus stop. He thanked the driver, and, as he was getting out of the car, the supervisor said, “One more thing, Gayl—I need your Pentagon badge.” Gayl handed it to him.
With that, Franz Gayl’s thirty-five-year career working for the Marines came to an abrupt halt—and, more than likely, ended for good.
“It was a disgrace, a public humiliation. I think it was designed that way,” Gayl (pronounced guile) told me ruefully about that morning, whose details he remembers down to the minute. But he couldn’t help but admire its efficiency. “It was beautifully choreographed! It was so well organized, even for the Marines.”
Nor could Gayl claim to be surprised. “I’d been expecting something like this for years, but they finally found a way to make it happen,” he said. The flash drive is a red herring, he believes—another in a series of reprisals against him by the Marines for revealing what he calls unconscionable mismanagement in the high command. After returning from a tour in Iraq, Gayl went public with an account of how Pentagon delays in sending protective equipment there may have cost troops their lives. He appeared on PBS’s NewsHour and testified before Congress, and in doing so crossed many people more powerful than himself, including General James Mattis, now the chief of U.S. Central Command and one of the most important men in the military.
Many Marines have personally thanked Gayl for his outspokenness. He’s been called a hero by senators and a “super-star” by the former commandant of the Marine Corps. But according to other Marines, Gayl was long a dangerously untraditional thinker in an organization that values tradition above all. “Just by virtue of his ideas, he made enemies,” said a general for whom Gayl once worked.
This is not the first federal investigation of Gayl, nor the first time the military has tried to dismiss him. His former supervisor, who urged his firing years ago, said Gayl had a history of insubordination and inappropriate behavior. “He had four or five projects he felt committed to, and when it came to them he wasn’t too interested in what the leadership or regulations required him to do,” he said.
Oddly, it’s a characterization that Gayl himself doesn’t entirely refute: “I was always a contentious figure,” he told me. “Everyone who has associated with me, they all think I’m a little well, wack.” But “everything I’d complained about before going to Iraq was a theoretical exercise. Iraq was the first time that there was a real correlation between the problems I knew about in the Marines and the actual human impact.” So he broke ranks. “It struck me that if I didn’t go outside of command, there’d be no change. I also knew it would be career suicide.”
Gayl enlisted in the Marines the day after his seventeenth birthday, and at fifty-three he still looks the part. At six feet tall and 220 pounds, he has gone soft around the middle, but he has a Marine’s at-the-ready bearing, massive arms, and a Robert Duvall-intense balding pattern. He calls to mind the actor until he opens his mouth, at which point a fusillade of figures and acronyms and jargon comes at you in a Minnesota accent.
“But what was special about this LAV was it had a 25mm Gatling gun on it, and it was just awesome! It would tear up the targets!” he explained as we drove out of Washington, D.C., in his wife’s cherry-red Volkswagen bug on a recent April morning. Gayl, wearing jeans, a sweatshirt, and very clean white sneakers, was describing in minute detail a day fifteen years prior that he spent blowing up things in the Mojave Desert. My question hadn’t been about light assault vehicles—I’d asked how he met his wife—but he stores most memories according to what he was doing, or, more specifically, shooting, for the Marines at the time. (He met his wife on the flight to California.)
We were on our way to Quantico, which elicited more fond recollection (“When I was on an antitank assault team there I used to fire flamethrowers!”) and then got Gayl onto the subject of the famous Quantico brig. At the moment it was home to Bradley Manning. Gayl had surprisingly little sympathy for him. “He apparently acted on his conscience, and I have great respect for that,” he said of the WikiLeaks source, but “there was no way he could have read all that material and educated himself on the issues. I would have more respect for him if he’d stayed in the chain of command.”
“Isn’t that a little ironic, coming from you?” I asked.
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