Pentagon seizes foreign reporter’s phone during official travel

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The Pentagon seized a foreign reporter’s phone and would not allow him to use his electronics while traveling with the Defense Department’s No. 2 official on Sunday, according to a person on the trip and an email viewed by POLITICO.

After this article was published on Monday, the reporter identified himself on Twitter as Reuters’ Idrees Ali, who has covered the Pentagon for six years and accompanied top officials on dozens of trips. He is not a U.S. citizen.

Ali tweeted a photo of the confiscated phone.

“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,” Ali wrote. Ali is not a U.S. citizen.

Before boarding the plane at Joint Base Andrews Sunday morning, Ali was told of a new rule mandating that foreigners flying on Air Force planes using top secret classification would be prohibited from using their electronics on the flight.

Ten minutes into the flight to Oslo, Norway, a public affairs officer “very apologetically” instructed Ali to “physically” hand over his phone, and was told that he could not use his AirPods or open his laptop, according to one of the people on the trip. The other reporter on the flight, who is a U.S. citizen, did not have to hand over their phone.

In a statement to POLITICO, Air Force spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said the incident was a “miscommunication” and said the service will “be reviewing the policy going forward.”

“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,” Ryder said.

The policy will 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 has traveled to secure locations including Iraq and Afghanistan with top officials, had been informed a few days earlier that “there might be a problem,” but was assured that “they were working through it and they were hopeful they could figure something out.”

During the flight, the pilot came back multiple times to explain to the public affairs officer that Ali could not use his phone at any point because the deputy Defense secretary needed to be ready at all times to take a secure phone call.

Ali was given his phone back upon landing after an eight-hour flight. The deputy, Kathleen Hicks, is traveling to Norway, the United Kingdom and Germany to meet with senior military and government leaders, including the heads of U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command.

Reporters of many nationalities — typically those in the Pentagon press pool who have a Pentagon badge and have undergone a background check — routinely accompany top defense officials on official travel. They often travel to secure locations and have access to classified information. Officials frequently brief reporters on and off the record during the flights, and reporters typically file stories from the planes using their devices.

“We have expressed our concern about this rule change regarding members of the press who are non-U.S. citizens being able to access electronic devices during travel with the U.S. Department of Defense and are seeking further information on the issue,” a Reuters spokesperson told POLITICO.