Politico

Pentagon seizes foreign reporter’s phone during official travel


The Pentagon seized a foreign reporter’s phone and would not allow them to use their 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.

Before boarding the plane at Joint Base Andrews Sunday morning, the reporter 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. The reporter, who works for Reuters, is not a U.S. citizen.

Ten minutes into the flight to Oslo, Norway, a public affairs officer “very apologetically” instructed the reporter to “physically” hand over their phone, and that 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 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.”

The first reporter, 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 assured that “they were working through it and they were hopeful they could figure something out,” according to the person, who spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do so.

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

The reporter was given their 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.

“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,” the reporter wrote in an email to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby that was viewed by POLITICO.

“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.

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