Airman in Leaks Case worked on a global network essential for drone missions
WASHINGTON – At an Air National Guard base in Cape Cod, Mass., more than 1,200 service members and civilians maintain one of the largest support systems for Pentagon drone missions in the world.
One of the workers was Airman First Class Jack Teixeira, the 21-year-old accused of posting top-secret military reports online.
Why such a young military member on Cape Cod had access to sensitive information, including battlefield updates about the war in Ukraine, has to do with the massive expansion of military drone operations in the post-9/11 wars, made possible by better satellite communications networks. It’s also the result of a dramatic reorganization of the Air National Guard nearly two decades ago that left small, far-flung air bases in need of new responsibilities. Those on Cape Cod and many others became intelligence units.
His arrest and subsequent revelations by the Justice Department shed light on a little-known Air Force mission that began in the 1990s and grew rapidly, eventually spreading to the Cape Cod base. The so-called Distributed Common Ground System is a vast computer network that processes the immense amounts of data generated by surveillance drones, spy satellites and other sensors – information that intelligence analysts sift through and relay to ground forces.
Usually referred to as DCGS, it contains top secret information and working on it requires an equivalent level of security clearance.
The system is now a worldwide network, but according to the Air Force, it started small in the mid-1990s with just three airbases — Langley in Virginia, Beale in California, and Osan in South Korea — and expanded in the early 2000s as the U.S. military placed more Communications satellites in space and the demand for airborne surveillance surged.
In 2001, the US military deployed about 200 drones, according to the Pentagon leadership. In the years that followed, commanders in Afghanistan and later Iraq wanted more of them. Much more.
The network soon expanded to two more bases: Ramstein in Germany in early 2003 and Hickam in Honolulu in late 2004, Air Force documents say.
According to two retired Air Force intelligence officers with direct experience in the system, a key decision by Congress at the time freed up a large pool of manpower to deploy to new locations.
In 2005, the Pentagon Base Realignment and Closure Commission made recommendations that affected most Air National Guard aviation units, with 14 of them losing their flight mission, the Government Accountability Office reported. The move left thousands of air guards out of work, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they continue to work for companies that do business with the federal government.
One of these units was the 102nd Fighter Squadron based at a base called Otis on Cape Cod.
Men and women from this Air National Guard wing and other former airborne units began training to work at the Distributed Common Ground System, learning to operate its computers and analyzing information from spy planes and the ever-growing number of drones flying in fly combat missions overseas. said the retired officials.
In a 2008 speech at the Air War College, then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said the number of unmanned aerial vehicles in service with the US military had risen to more than 5,000.
Stations for the network were soon established at Air National Guard bases in Indiana and at Otis, where Jack Teixeira’s stepfather transferred from the 102nd Fighter Squadron to a post in the newly christened 102nd Intelligence Squadron.
Today, according to Air Force documents, there are 27 DCGS stations in the United States and two other countries. But the original five are the busiest and operate non-stop year-round, the retired officers said. Each of these locations is supported by a corresponding Air National Guard unit.
The unit in Germany is currently in high demand as it serves the European command of the US and thus American support for Ukraine in its war with Russia. The Ramstein station is supported by Joint Base Cape Cod’s 102nd Intelligence Support Wing, the officers said, which is supported by the 102nd Intelligence Support Squadron, where Airman Teixeira is based.
By 2019, when Airman Teixeira joined the Air National Guard, the U.S. military operated more than 11,000 drones, according to the Pentagon.
In 2021, his top-secret clearance was approved, according to Justice Department indictment documents, allowing him entry into the facility, which has an operations floor with computer terminals and flat-screen TVs showing live video feeds from classified drone missions. Some sites have facilities measuring thousands of square feet, officials said. Cell phones are not allowed inside.
Small teams of aviators in the units typically speak to pilots flying U-2 high-altitude spy planes and RQ-4 Global Hawks, as well as MQ-9 Reapers and MQ-1 Predators over combat zones.
Airmen like Mr. Teixeira typically troubleshoot hardware and software problems and spend hours conducting routine maintenance at an IT support shop while others gather information to pass on to ground forces around the world, the officers said.
According to his messages on Discord, Airman Teixeira alternated working eight-hour shifts five days a week and 12-hour shifts three or four days, followed by three or four days off.
How the intelligence reports were allegedly removed from safe rooms remains unclear.
President Biden has directed officials to get to the bottom of why Airman Teixeira “had access in the first place,” and Pentagon leaders are reviewing how information is shared and who will have access to specific reports going forward.
The Air Force announced on April 18 that it had temporarily closed the 102nd Intelligence Wing’s missions, which were delegated to “other organizations” within the service.
In the recent skirmishes, two of Airman Teixeira’s wing superiors have been suspended pending an internal investigation by the Air Force Inspector General, the service said Thursday.
Her access to classified information has been temporarily blocked, a spokeswoman added.