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I edit Full Disclosure, a newsletter that covers privacy and surveillance. For years, I’d known that various White House staff members—and even President Reagan—talked by radio phones from Air Force One, and that their conversations could be picked up with a low-tech police scanner. I was always curious whether these callers knew how public their conversations were.
Finally, on Aug. 12, I decided to find out. I called the White House and asked to speak to Wendy Smith, whom I’d heard called from Air Force One. After being transferred a couple of times, I ended up at the White House press office. The following conversation ensued:
White House: This is April.
Full Disclosure: Yes, I was calling to see if I could get the title of Wendy Smith.
WH: Can I ask who I am talking to?
FD: I am Glen Roberts with the Full Disclosure News Service.
WH: And I’m just curious, what are you looking for her title for?
FD: I’d also like to get a phone number where I can reach her at.
WH: I’m not certain that Wendy generally talks to the press. I’m just curious what, for what reason you want to get in touch with her.
FD: I wanted to….
WH: I can help you get in touch with her if you want me to.
FD: I wanted to talk to her about some phone calls from Air Force One.
WH: OK, is there a reason you want to talk to her?
WH: It’s odd, we don’t usually get press requests for her, that’s all.
FD: OK, basically she was making phone calls from Air Force One today and they were being monitored by average citizens out there, and we wanted to get her comments on the use of radio telephones from Air Force One and the public listening in.
WH: OK, and you’re from Full Disclosure News Service?
WH: Is that a publication?
FD: We have a magazine and a radio show.
WH: And are you in Milwaukee?
FD: No, I am in the Chicago area.
WH: And you were listening to the call?
FD: I have information that she placed calls from Air Force One that were being monitored by the public.
WH: Like a ham radio or something?
FD: Like a police scanner, like something you buy at Radio Shack for $99.
WH: OK. OK, and you want to talk to her about the substance of the call or you want to talk to her about the….
FD: The publicness of the calls and whether she is aware the calls are monitorable by any of the 12 million people in the U.S. with police scanners and things of that nature.
FD: Also, I was interested in what her title was because I just had a name and didn’t know what her position was.
WH: Yeah. Um. What was your name?
FD: Glen Roberts.
WH: And your phone number?
FD: (708) 838-4478.
WH: OK. OK, and what would you just…what was the conversation you overheard, just for my information?
FD: My information is she placed a phone call or two from Air Force One that was broadcast for anyone who wanted to listen in on it.
WH: OK, and you don’t know what the substance of the call was or who they talked to?
FD: I have some notes on that, but I would like to talk to her about it.
WH: OK, well, I’m trying to help you out, but I am just…I’d like to know what I’m…what’s she’s gonna have to respond to before I, you know, get in touch with her. I’m sure she’s interested.
FD: Well, you can pass it on, and she can call me back or not. Um, you know, but we like to talk to people and get their views on it and not have somebody telling people what to say.
WH: OK, I’m not doing that at all.
FD: I don’t want somebody to prepare a speech or a….
WH: No. No, I was not even insinuating that. I’m sure she would be interested in who she was talking to, when she talked to you. It was obviously a private phone call so I don’t want her to be totally caught off-guard. You know what I mean?
FD: That’s really the point of my call. Is it really a private phone call? Are the phones on that plane presented to the users of them as being private phone calls or are they being presented as “gee, there are 12 million people with police scanners that can tune in?”
FD: Because additionally, New York Mayor Giuliani made calls from Air Force One today.
WH: Um hmm.
FD: I’m not sure if you can put me in contact with him or if I should go….
WH: Yeah, if you want to talk to him, you should probably talk to his office.
WH: OK, well, I will do my best to get in touch with her. She’s obviously on the road right now. Our communication to that site is somewhat limited because of the, because the trip was obviously not planned. The decision to go wasn’t finalized until last night. Our communication was not up to what it normally is for a trip.
FD: And your name is?
WH: My name is April.
FD: Can you give me the direct number there?
WH: Sure, it’s 456-2580. OK, if you don’t hear from me, you can call back. But I will try and get in touch with them. Like I said, we don’t have phones set up like we normally do on the road. But I will do my best to reach them.
Neither April nor Wendy Smith ever returned my call.