Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall testifies before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, April 18, 2023.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall testifies before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, April 18, 2023. U.S. Air Force / Eric Dietrich

Tighten Access to Classified Info, Air Force Secretary Says

As the Pentagon responds to a classified document leak, officials should focus on enforcing “need to know,” according to Frank Kendall.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado—The Pentagon must “tighten up” access to classified information in the wake of a recent leak of hundreds of sensitive Pentagon documents, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said Wednesday.

“We may get a little bit lax about enforcing the need to know. I think we might need to do a much better job of that. Merely having a clearance does not give you access to information, you also have to have the need to know that information for some legitimate purpose,” Kendall told reporters at the Space Symposium on Wednesday. 

But some have warned the Pentagon’s response to the leak could worsen an already too-secretive department, and officials have said they’ve further restricted access to classified information since the leak.

“At the end of the day, there's always a balance between the openness we can have with the public and everybody else, but also what we need to protect from the point of view of giving our potential adversaries information that could benefit them,” Kendall said. 

The Pentagon has taken away the intelligence mission from the base where the leak happened, and “temporarily reassigned” that mission to other organizations in the Air Force. Federal law enforcement charged a 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard—Jack Teixeria—in connection with the leak, which included documents with U.S. military assessments of the Ukraine war and both Kyiv and Moscow’s presumed capabilities posted on the video game chat server Discord. 

The space domain already faces an overclassification problem, John Plumb, the first assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said Tuesday at the Space Symposium. The Pentagon’s policies for space-related information “slow us down,” he said. 

“Frankly, we struggle to align our own efforts within the U.S. government when overclassification prevents key stakeholders from communicating effectively,” Plumb said. 

The Pentagon won’t be able to conduct combined space operations at an “operationally-relevant speed” if it can't share classified information with allies and partners quickly, he said. 

But the department has a responsibility to protect sensitive national security matters, Kendall said, though it does plan to take a look at its stovepipes. 

“One of the things that there's been a lot of pressure to do over the last several years, this goes back quite a while, is to break down some of the internal barriers between different parts of government particularly and with our allies,” Kendall said.