Why Did the FBI Seize the Phones of the Dali's Crew?

AP Photo/Steve Helber

It's been more than six weeks since the cargo ship Dali struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge, causing it to collapse. While some detour channels have been cleared, and some of the cargo has been removed, the Dali is still stuck in the same spot with a huge section of the bridge pushing down her bow. Plans to remove the final bridge sections using small explosives were delayed by rough weather this week. Amazingly most of the crew has remained onboard the vessel for much of this time. Reverend Josh Messick of the Baltimore International Seafarers' Center has been in touch with the crew regularly but he describes the situation as having been quite stressful for the sailors. One big part of that stress is the fact that the FBI seized all of the sailor's phones as soon as they arrived and they still haven't returned them. (CBS News)

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Adding to the stress, Messick said their phones have been confiscated by the FBI as part of the agency's investigation into the disaster. 

"The crew cooperated fully, unlocked them all. They had an understanding they would be getting them back in a couple of days, and that's yet to happen," he said. 

While they now have replacement phones, they no longer have their contacts or family photos.

Messick said, "It's the little pieces of humanity that have been stripped away, and that is what is particularly heartbreaking."

The FBI is declining to comment about "an ongoing investigation," but it's something of a mystery why the situation is being handled in this fashion. I suppose I can understand why the phones might have been initially taken during the rush to investigate the accident. Perhaps the authorities were interested in any possible location data that they may have contained.

But it's been six weeks now. The crew has been issued replacement phones as noted above, but they no longer have their lists of contact information, personal photos, or anything else. Does anyone really believe that this was anything other than a tragic equipment failure leading to an accidental collision with the bridge's superstructure? Does the FBI suspect that it might have been planned and someone on the ship could have been sending messages about the plot? That doesn't make any sense.

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I suppose it's possible that someone on the ship might have snapped some pictures of the collision and those might have been useful in the investigation. But the crew surrendered their phones immediately and without question. How long does it take the FBI to download a few pictures? And while we're on the subject, since when does the FBI need to have physical possession of someone's phone to access the data? They do that on a regular basis by going through the carriers, frequently without bothering to get a warrant.

Perhaps I wouldn't be quite so suspicious about the FBI's actions in these rather obscure proceedings if it weren't for the Bureau's rather dodgy record over the past few years. Too many of their agents demonstrate almost no respect for people's privacy or constitutional rights and they try to justify any type of intrusion in the name of national security or protecting their investigations. They have had more than six weeks to tackle this situation. We may not know for a while precisely which pieces of equipment on the Dali failed or why the system broke down. But they should at least be able to determine whether this was an accident or some form of piracy or sabotage. And if it wasn't intentional, why is the FBI still involved? Shouldn't the Department of Transportation be handling this? Something about this entire situation just doesn't sound right.

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John Stossel 5:30 PM | July 13, 2024
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