WASHINGTON — On an Air National Guard base in Cape Code, Mass., more than 1,200 military service members and civilians maintain one of the largest support systems for Pentagon drone missions around 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 junior-ranking service member on Cape Cod had access to sensitive intelligence, including battlefield updates on the war in Ukraine, has to do with the massive expansion in military drone operations in the post-9/11 wars that was made possible by better satellite communication networks. It is also the result of a dramatic reorganization in the Air National Guard nearly two decades ago that left small, far-flung air bases in need of new responsibilities. The one on Cape Cod and many others became intelligence outfits.
His arrest and subsequent Justice Department disclosures shined a light on a little-known Air Force mission that began in the 1990s and grew rapidly, eventually spreading to the base on Cape Cod. Called the Distributed Common Ground System, it is a vast computer network that handles the immense amounts of data generated by surveillance drones, spy satellites and other sensors — information that intelligence analysts pore through and pass along to troops on the ground.
Usually referred to as D.C.G.S., it carries top-secret information, and working on it requires an equivalent security clearance.
The system is now a worldwide network, but according to the Air Force it started small in the mid-1990s at just three Air Force bases — Langley in Virginia, Beale in California and Osan in South Korea — and expanded in the early 2000s as the U.S. military placed more communication satellites in space and demand for airborne surveillance surged.
In 2001, according to Pentagon leadership, the U.S. military had about 200 drones in service. In the years that followed, commanders in Afghanistan and later in Iraq wanted more of them. Many 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 that time freed up a large labor pool to serve at new sites.
In 2005, the Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure commission made recommendations that affected most of the Air National Guard’s aviation units, with 14 of them losing their flying mission, the Government Accountability Office reported. The move left thousands of air guardsmen without jobs, the officers said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of their continuing work for companies that do business with the federal government.
One of those units was the 102nd Fighter Wing at a base called Otis on Cape Cod.
Men and women from that Air National Guard wing and other former flying units began training to work on the Distributed Common Ground System, learning to run its computers and analyze intelligence from spy planes and the ever-increasing numbers of drones flying in combat missions overseas, the retired officers said.
In a speech to the Air War College in 2008, Robert M. Gates, then the secretary of defense, said the number of unmanned aircraft in service with the U.S. military had increased 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 made the transition from the 102nd Fighter Wing to a post at the newly christened 102nd Intelligence Wing.
Today, there are 27 D.C.G.S. stations in the United States and two foreign countries, according to Air Force documents. But the original five are the busiest, operating nonstop year-round, the retired officers said. Each of those sites is supported by a corresponding Air National Guard unit.
The unit in Germany is currently in great demand because it serves the U.S. European Command, and, by extension, America’s support of Ukraine in its war with Russia. The Ramstein station is backed up by the 102nd Intelligence Wing at Joint Base Cape Cod, the officers said, which is supported by the 102nd Intelligence Support Squadron, where Airman Teixeira is stationed.
By 2019, when Airman Teixeira joined the Air National Guard, the U.S. military was operating more than 11,000 drones, according to the Pentagon.
In 2021, his top-secret clearance was approved, Justice Department charging documents said, allowing him entry into the facility, which has an operations floor filled with computer terminals and flat-screen televisions showing live video feeds from classified drone missions. Some sites have operations facilities many thousands of square feet in size, the officers said. Cellphones are not allowed inside.
Small teams of airmen at the units typically talk to pilots flying high-altitude U-2 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 fix hardware and software problems and conduct routine maintenance for hours at a time in what is essentially an I.T. support shop while others collect intelligence that they can transmit to ground forces around the world, the officers said.
According to his messages on Discord, Airman Teixeira alternated between working eight-hour shifts five days a week and 12-hour shifts for three or four days at a time followed by three or four days off.
How the intelligence reports were allegedly removed from secure spaces remains unclear.
President Biden has instructed officials to get to the root of why Airman Teixeira “had access in the first place,” and Pentagon leaders are reviewing how intelligence is shared and who will have access to certain reports in the future.
The Air Force announced on April 18 that it had temporarily shut down the 102nd Intelligence Wing’s missions, which have been transferred to “other organizations” within the service.
In the most recent fallout, two of Airman Teixeira’s superiors at the wing have been suspended pending the completion of an internal investigation by the Air Force inspector general, the service said on Thursday.
Their access to classified information has been temporarily blocked, a spokeswoman added.
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