Fort Worth has quietly become a hub for military intelligence
By CHRIS VAUGHN | MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS Published: March 9, 2010
FORT WORTH, Texas — It is an unremarkable beige-brick building known by its military acronym, the JRIC.
Behind several secure doors requiring top-secret clearance sit analysts who conduct counterterrorism investigations in the Philippines, analyze military buildups in Venezuela, and dissect confrontations between China and Taiwan in the strait that separates them.
Hard to believe, perhaps, but beyond the rows of tactical aircraft and acres of runway at Naval Air Station Fort Worth is a rather small and publicity-shy unit of intelligence analysts overseen by the Navy Intelligence Reserve Command. "We've tended to like it that way," said Lt. Dan Eckles, who oversees the computers on-site for the Defense Intelligence Agency based at the Pentagon.
In fact, the Navy Reserve's entire world of intelligence is commanded by a one-star admiral, who has maintained the headquarters at NAS Fort Worth since the mid-1990s.
In addition to deploying people worldwide and year-round, the intelligence command has reservists in the JRIC conducting strategic and operational intelligence in the world's hot spots, all while never leaving Fort Worth. And none of it is done merely for training purposes.
Several years ago, the primary justification in establishing the Joint Reserve Intelligence Centers was to tap the expertise of reservists for immediate and consistent help, not just when they were mobilized on active duty. More than 40 percent of the Navy's intelligence personnel have civilian jobs and work for the military only part time, and the military could no longer afford to keep them idle.
"I can remember when the work we did came mailed in packages," said Rear Adm. Gordon Russell, who works at the University of Colorado in Boulder when not in uniform.
"We would do the work and send it back," Russell said. "You never knew if the work you had done was being utilized by anybody. But we're doing real-time work now. It's very relevant, and they know the value they're adding to the commands almost immediately."
The Navy intelligence command in Fort Worth, it should be noted, does not collect intelligence.
The 265 people who work there process and analyze intelligence already gathered, whether from humans inside foreign nations, satellite imagery, foreign newspapers, intercepted e-mail traffic or other means.
The military runs 28 joint intelligence centers — eight of them overseen by the Navy — that are staffed with reservists and some active-duty personnel and civilian contractors. Fort Worth is one of two Navy centers that are not on one of the coasts. (Chicago is the other.)
That means that they are largely Navy operations and led by Navy officers, but the teams in Fort Worth include small numbers of soldiers, airmen and Marines who do the same work but in different uniforms.
The largest team in Fort Worth works for the U.S. Pacific Command, one of the unified combatant commands, a system the military uses to divide the world into several theaters of operation. The Pacific Command, led by Adm. Robert Willard, is based in Hawaii and is responsible for overseeing U.S. military policy in Asia.
Another team performs intelligence duties for the U.S. Southern Command, based in Miami, and another provides intelligence for the U.S. Pacific fleets that ply the waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Gary Colby, who lives in Houston and works for the National Drug Intelligence Center during the week, serves as an image analyst for Latin America.
"They send me tasking with targets they want analyzed," Colby said of officials with the Southern Command. "I can get different angles of view and explain that imagery."
A smaller detachment works in San Antonio providing intelligence for the U.S. Central Command, which is under the leadership of Army Gen. David Petraeus and oversees operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen.
The center in Fort Worth may grow, too.
Officials with the U.S. Africa Command, the newest of its type and only 3 years old, is considering putting intelligence analysts in Fort Worth.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the work done in Fort Worth in recent years involves counterterrorism and narco-terrorism intelligence.
"That's the overarching subject the world over," said Cmdr. Rob Wachtel, the officer in charge of the Southeast Region of Navy Reserve intelligence.
Before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, a number of terrorists were rounded up because of investigative work done in Fort Worth, Wachtel said.
But reservists also analyze satellite or drone imagery, update military biographies and assessments, apprise leaders of political atmospheres or upcoming elections, or provide targeting data for the Navy.
"The only times we tend to get tactical is when we're deployed in support of the war-fighter," Russell said.
The reserves have become increasingly involved in deployments.
Almost all of the individual mobilizations for intelligence personnel are filled by reservists, about 450 of whom are currently deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrain, the Horn of Africa and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, among other locations.
"People tend to think of a reservist doing one weekend a month and two weeks a year," Russell said. "By and large, that is no longer the case with Navy intelligence. On average, our reservists are spending 90 days a year on active duty."
As the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan increases this year, the ranks of intelligence personnel will also grow.
"We are feeling that right now," Wachtel said. "There are good number of mobilization orders headed down to us that we've got to field."
Anyone who works in the intelligence world undergoes a rigorous background investigation in which friends, finances and marriage are all fair game.
Financial problems, for example, are seen as a sign of irresponsibility and a temptation for bribery. Marital problems, on the other hand, suggest the potential for blackmail.
"This is not like a regular job," Wachtel said. "I'm going to ask you questions that are well beyond what are routine or allowed in the civilian world."