Why making the White House a no-phone zone makes sense

A new policy to eliminate personal devices from the West Wing may be aimed at plugging leaks, but it could prove a smart move when it comes to security.

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The White House is banning personal mobile phones from West Wing staffers starting Jan. 8. It's not clear who precisely is subject to the new policy, but according to Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, the shift has been in the works for a while.

"This is about the security and the integrity of the technology systems here at the White House," Sanders said in a Jan. 4 briefing. "This is something that has been in process and in the works for over six months. And we were making sure that all of the information and the ability for the government phones to increase their ability for other application so that we can comply with Presidential Records Act -- that was a big piece of making sure that this was done. Now that that process is completed, we can move forward and that will start next week."

She dismissed as "a ridiculous characterization" the question of whether the policy was prompted by the many salacious revelations in the newly released "The Fire and the Fury" by Michael Wolff, about the early days of the Trump administration.

The administration has faced multiple lawsuits and faced complaints from members of Congress from both sides of the aisle over the issue of records preservation and management. In October, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the chairman of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he was told by White House officials that text messaging capability and social chat apps had been removed from official phones because of archiving headaches.

In response to legal challenges, the Justice Department has argued that the president has wide authority when it comes over the disposition of presidential records under the law, and that outside parties lack standing to challenge these powers.

The White House didn't respond to FCW's emails seeking more detail about the ban and how it would be applied.

A White House ban on personal devices would be by no means unique in the government. The Defense Department, spy agencies and other sensitive locations already maintain policies about where and when personal devices can be used.

"The Pentagon, for example, allows personal mobile devices within their space but limits their use within office space; have to be placed in a RF resistant metal container," former National Security Agency official Curt Dukes told FCW via email. "Bottom line, current policy prohibits bringing mobile devices inside of [sensitive compartmented information facilities]."

"I, for one, don't have any problem with the White House setting rules on how they want to manage the security of their facilities," said Greg Touhill, a retired Air Force General who also served as the nation's first federal chief information security officer under the Obama administration.

"I sure as heck didn’t bring my phone into the Oval Office, I didn’t bring it into the Situation Room," Touhill said. "There were boxes where you had to lock it up. It sure seems like a fair and prudent policy to me and if I were still in the [federal CISO] position, I would be nodding my head yes."

FCW staff writer Derek Johnson contributed reporting to this article.

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