Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall speaks with students and guests at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Nov. 13, 2023.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall speaks with students and guests at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Nov. 13, 2023. U.S. Air Force / Eric Dietrich

USAF cracks down on ‘need to know’ violations in wake of Discord leaks

Wing commander fired, 14 more disciplined after hundreds of documents were posted to a chat platform.

Just because you’re cleared for secrets doesn’t mean you have a “need to know” them. After hundreds of classified documents were leaked earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force is trying to ensure that airmen clear both bars before they access sensitive information.

The service has “implemented several reforms to improve procedures related to need to know and classified access, in addition to improving accountability for protection of classified and sensitive information. Clearance approval levels and need-to-know are two fundamentally distinct concepts,” according to a statement released with an Air Force inspector general investigation into Massachusetts Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira’s leak of documents on Discord, a chat platform widely used by video gamers.

The report, dated August 2023 and publicly released on Dec. 11, blamed Teixeira’s superiors for a “lack of supervision.” The service has disciplined 15 people, ranging in rank from staff sergeant to colonel, in connection with the leak, the statement said.

The inspector general found that the leak was caused, in part, by personnel conflating having access to classified systems with the “need to know” principle. Many personnel “disregarded” the requirement to have a valid reason to access information, the report said. 

Teixeira was an IT maintainer in the Air National Guard’s 102nd Intelligence Wing and had access to the Pentagon’s Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, a top-secret IT network. 

“Computer/IT specialists require system access to perform system maintenance, but do not require access to intelligence content or products to maintain the system,” the report said.

The Air Force has implemented several reforms since the leak, including: “improving need-to-know enforcement for electronic and hard-copy classified information; providing additional guidance on layered physical security protections for facilities and systems; increasing clarity on the responsibility of individuals and commanders to report behaviors of concern; ensuring hand-off and receipt occurs within personnel security systems when individuals transfer to other assignments; increased emphasis on cyber hygiene; and improving security training content and delivery,” the service said.  

The inspector general said that three of Teixeira’s superiors knew of four separate instances of his “questionable activity.” 

“Had any of these three members come forward and properly disclosed the information they held at the time of the incidents, the length and depth of the unauthorized disclosures may have been reduced by several months,” the report said. 

The commander of the 102nd Wing, Col. Sean Riley, was relieved of his command and Enrique Dovalo, 102nd Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group commander “received administrative action for concerns with unit culture and compliance with policies and standards.” Previously suspended commanders from the 102d Intelligence Support Squadron were permanently removed, the Air Force said. 

“Every airman and guardian is entrusted with the solemn duty to safeguard our nation’s classified defense information. When there is a breach of that sacred trust, for any reason, we will act in accordance with our laws and policies to hold responsible individuals accountable,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in a statement. “Our national security demands leaders at every level protect critical assets, ensuring they do not fall into the hands of those who would do the United States or our allies and partners harm.”