Pentagon seizes Reuters reporter's phone
Monday 23 May 2022
A Reuters reporter's phone was seized and he was barred from using his electronic equipment while travelling with the US Defence Department's second-highest official on Sunday.
Before boarding the plane at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington the reporter, who is not a US citizen, was told of a new rule that foreigners flying on US Air Force planes using top secret classification would be prohibited from using their electronics on the flight.
The story was broken by politico.com which spoke to a person on the trip and viewed an email. Reuters did not respond to a request by The Baron to identify the reporter but he identified himself on Twitter as Idrees Ali, a foreign policy correspondent covering the Pentagon, and gave his location as “Washington D.C. via Karachi”. He said that since the incident “and to their credit” the Pentagon had apologised and said his phone would not be taken from him again and the new US Air Force policy, which he described as ”totally incomprehensible” was being reviewed.
Ali said that ten minutes into the eight-hour flight to Oslo a public affairs officer “very apologetically” instructed the reporter to “physically” hand over their phone, and said they could not use their Airpods or open their laptop, according to one of the people on the trip. The other reporter on the flight, who is a US citizen, did not have to hand over their phone.
Reporters travelling with top US defence officials often file stories using their devices mid-flight.
US Air Force spokesperson Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said the incident was a “miscommunication” and said the service will “be reviewing the policy going forward.”
“Like everyone serving in uniform, US Air Force aircrews are expected to protect classified information aboard their aircraft. In accordance with a new policy, the aircrew in this case applied a more restrictive approach to communication security, which led to a miscommunication about the reporter’s use of personal electronic devices on the aircraft,” he told Politico.
The policy would not be applied to the reporter during the remainder of the trip, Ryder said.
“We respect the role of a free press and welcome them aboard our flights. We regret the inconvenience we caused this reporter, and we will be reviewing the policy going forward.”
Ali, who has covered the Pentagon for years and travelled to Iraq and Afghanistan with top officials, had been informed a few days earlier that “there might be a problem,” but assured that “they were working through it and they were hopeful they could figure something out,” according to the person who spoke to Politico.
During the flight, the pilot came back many times to explain to the public affairs officer that the reporter could not use their phone at any point because the deputy defence secretary needed to be ready at all times to take a secure phone call.
Ali was given his phone back upon landing. The deputy, Kathleen Hicks, was travelling to Norway, the United Kingdom and Germany to meet senior military and government leaders.
“It’s not only impossible to do my job without a phone and laptop, it’s also a bit insulting that after doing dozens of trips over the past six years (many to more sensitive locations) my phone was taken and there isn’t enough trust to be able to get some sort of exemption so I can continue to write stories on the plane,” Ali wrote in an email to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.
A Reuters spokesperson told Politico: “We have expressed our concern about this rule change regarding members of the press who are non-US citizens being able to access electronic devices during travel with the US Department of Defence and are seeking further information on the issue.” ■