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Military officials ban use of phones with GPS technology

WASHINGTON—American military officials have halted the use of certain satellite telephones by battlefield reporters in Iraq, fearing that signals from the instruments could give away U.S. troop locations.

The so-called Thuraya phones, manufactured by Hughes Network Systems Inc., of Germantown, Md., allow reporters to communicate with their editors and file stories via computer in remote areas. Reporters prefer them because they are light and small, said Gino Jensen, the director of technical services at GMPCS Personal Communications, a company in Pompano Beach, Fla., that supplies communications equipment to news agencies.

The Thuraya phones' transmitters contain Global Positioning Systems technology that provides the exact location of the phones.

Their use will be banned only in areas where combat is possible in Iraq, said U.S. Army Capt. Tracey Golden of the coalition press center in Kuwait. Reporters from several agencies who are scattered throughout Iraq say U.S. and coalition forces recently seized their phones and batteries.

Before the war, the U.S. Central Command notified reporters that field commanders might temporarily restrict electronic communication for security reasons, Golden said. Jensen said he, too, advised news agencies that the phones could be a liability on the battlefield.

"They were warned," Jensen said.

However, before the war Pentagon officials said they were aware of the problem posed by the Thuraya's GPS capability and would find a way to solve it.

Andrea Gerlin, a war correspondent for Knight Ridder, said U.S. Marines took her Thuraya batteries Monday. The Marines were acting on orders from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and U.S. Central Command, she said.

The problem has left dozens of reporters dependent on the military to provide access to telecommunications equipment. Golden said some reporters with different types of satellite phones were sharing their equipment with colleagues until the Thuraya phones are replaced.

"So far, our correspondents have shown great enterprise in working around the phone problem," Knight Ridder Washington editor Clark Hoyt said. "Some have been able to borrow other types of phones to communicate. Others have sent e-mailed dispatches over borrowed military laptops. But we can't afford to rely on the kindness of others for the long term, and without reliable communications from the field, our coverage suffers enormously and could even become impossible."

So far, no military officials have tried to censor or block any copy from Knight Ridder reporters using borrowed military communications gear.

Knight Ridder, the nation's second largest newspaper publisher, recently purchased 14 new satellite phones that don't have the GPS technology, said Joyce Davis, Knight Ridder's deputy foreign editor in Washington. Plans were under way to rush them to correspondents in the field, she said.

Jensen said news agencies had spent up to $900 apiece for Thuraya phones.

The replacement phones, which have no GPS technology, average about $1,400.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.