Air Force rescinds new policy that led to Reuters reporter’s phone being confiscated on Pentagon trip to Europe
The U.S. Air Force rescinded a new policy on May 23, 2022, that resulted in a Reuters foreign correspondent having his cell phone confiscated while on a flight with the Department of Defense the day before.
Idrees Ali was not allowed to use any electronic devices after boarding a plane to Oslo, Norway, on May 22, with Defense Deputy Kathleen Hicks because he is not a U.S. citizen.
Following public outcry from Ali’s colleagues and press freedom groups, the Air Force issued a statement announcing the revision fewer than 24 hours after the incident. CNN posted an image of the now rescinded policy, which had not been shown before.
"The recent revision to security procedures was being implemented in an incremental manner, focusing first on non-U.S. travelers, but has since been rescinded by the 89th Airlift Wing commander and therefore no longer applies," Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, an Air Force spokesman, said in a statement reported by the Washington Examiner.
"Regrettably, this had the unintended effect of impacting one reporter on this past weekend's mission," Ryder added. "I have personally reached out to the reporter to apologize for the inconvenience and miscommunication as we very much respect the role of a free press and welcome them aboard our flights. Any revisions to future security policies will be thoroughly coordinated with affected organizations, and communicated extensively with all travelers prior to missions."
The Pentagon Press Association, a membership group for journalists covering the DoD, praised the actions of the Air Force in a statement to the Washington Examiner, saying, "The Pentagon Press Association is glad the U.S. Air Force quickly rescinded a rule that would have prevented independent journalists from doing their jobs while traveling with defense officials."
A Reuters reporter had his phone confiscated and was prohibited from using any electronic devices during a flight to Oslo, Norway, on May 22, 2022, while traveling with the Department of Defense.
Idrees Ali, who has been a foreign correspondent covering the Pentagon since 2015 and is not a U.S. citizen, was told of a new policy on May 19 that would impact his ability to use his cellphone during the eight-hour flight to Oslo with Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. As of publication, the Pentagon has not responded to a request for comment or for a copy of the policy to review.
According to Politico, the policy states that non-U.S. citizens traveling with government officials who have “top-secret” security clearance are prohibited from using any devices during the flight. As a foreign correspondent, Ali has traveled to secure locations in the past with top government officials, including trips to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Officials for the Pentagon had been “working on a resolution” with Ali before the departure date, but after arriving at Joint Base Andrews airport on the 22nd, Ali was told that no resolution to the issue was found and he would not be allowed to use his cell phone or laptop computer for the flight duration.
Shortly after taking off, a DoD official instructed Ali to hand over his phone. Ali documented the incident on Twitter and shared a photo of the pouch he placed his phone in before it was confiscated.
Officials returned the cellphone to Ali after landing in Oslo. Reporters, including Ali, are set to visit the United Kingdom and Germany as Hicks meets with military and government leaders.
DoD and Air Force officials did not respond to requests for comment from the Tracker, but in a statement to Politico, Air Force spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said the policy was under review and would not impact Ali for the remainder of the trip.
“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,” Ryder said.
In an emailed statement to the Tracker, a Reuters spokesperson said the news agency had “expressed our concern about the 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. The matter has now been resolved.”