The United States Pentagon is taking some heat for seizing a foreign reporter’s phone and not allowing him to use his electronics while traveling with the Defense Department this weekend. The reporter identified himself on Twitter as Reuter’s Idrees Ali, a journalist that has covered the Pentagon for six years.
He was traveling with the Number 2 official with the Defense Department as he has done with other officials on dozens of trips.
Ali is not a citizen of the United States. He tweeted a photo of the confiscated phone and wrote, “This policy was the first time I had experienced this after covering dozens of Pentagon trips across three administrations. It means that we can’t do the very thing I’m supposed to on these trips, which is write stories.”
Before boarding the plane which took off from Joint Base Andrews on Sunday morning, Ali was told there was a new rule that mandated foreigners flying on Air Force planes using top-secret classification would not be allowed to use their electronics on the flight.
After just ten minutes of flying to Oslo, Norway, a public affairs officer instructed Ali to “physically” hand over his phone. The officer was very apologetic but informed the journalist that he could not use his AirPods or open his laptop, according to a person who witnessed the altercation.
Another reporter on the flight who was a citizen of the United States did not have to hand over his phone.
Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a spokesperson for the Air Force, indicated that the incident was a “miscommunication.” He said that the Air Force would be reviewing the policy in the future.
Ryder also said, “Like everyone serving in uniform, U.S. 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 also indicated that the policy would not be imposed on the same reporter for the remainder of the trip. Ryder noted that the Air Force respects the role of a free press and welcomed them on trips. He also said that they regretted any inconvenience that was caused to the reporter and reiterated the fact that they would review the policy moving forward.
Even though Ali had a history of covering the Pentagon for years, traveling to places like Iraq and Afghanistan with the Defense Department officials, he had been informed that there “might be a problem.” He was assured that “they were working through it and they were hopeful they could figure something out.”
And during the flight, the pilot came back to the cabin several times to explain to the public affairs office that Ali could not use his phone at any point because the deputy Defense secretary needed to be ready at all times to receive a secure phone call.
The flight lasted for 8 hours and then the phone was given back to Ali. Kathleen Hicks, the deputy on board, was traveling to Norway, the United Kingdom, and German so that she could meet with senior military and government leaders. This trip included the heads of the U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command.
It is not unusual for reporters of different nationalities to travel to the Pentagon press pool. They typically have a badge and have gone through a background investigation. They travel to secure locations and have access to classified information. Reporters are regularly briefed by officials both on and off the record, and then they file stories from the plane using their electronic devices.
There is a lot of pushback on this story from the press, but it doesn’t seem out of line for the pilot to make sure the Defense secretary could receive a secure phone call.