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Pentagon lifts media ban on coffin photos

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday said he was lifting the ban against media photos of soldiers' coffins returning to the U.S. but will instead leave the decision up to families.
Image: US military personnel offloading coffinsof US soldiers killed in Iraq at DoverAir Base in Delaware
News organizations had been banned since the 1991 Gulf War from taking photos like this one, obtained by and originally taken by the Pentagon. The undated photo shows caskets of soldiers killed in Iraq being offloaded at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Families of America’s war dead will be allowed to decide if news organizations can photograph the homecomings of their loved ones, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.

Gates said he decided to allow media photos of flag-draped caskets at Dover Air Force Base, Del., if the families agree. A working group will come up with details and logistics.

The new policy reverses a ban put in place in 1991 by then President George H.W. Bush. Some critics contended the government was trying to hide the human cost of war.

"We should not presume to make the decision for the families — we should actually let them make it," Gates said at a Pentagon news conference.

"We’ve seen so many families go through so much," added Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said the goal is to meet family needs in the most dignified way possible.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama asked Gates to review the policy of media coverage of the fallen returning to Dover. He said Gates came back with a policy consistent with that used at Arlington National Cemetery.

Gibbs said it gives families the final say and "allows them to make that decision and protect their privacy if that’s what they wish to do. And the president is supportive of the secretary’s decision."

Shortly after Obama took office, Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey also asked the White House to roll back the 1991 ban.

Over the years, some exceptions to the policy were made, allowing the media to photograph coffins in some cases, until the administration of President George W. Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A leading military families group has said that the policy, enforced without exception during George W. Bush's presidency, should be changed so that survivors of the dead can decide whether photographers can record their return.

Ritual at Dover base
Air Force cargo planes carrying the war dead home land on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware where a solemn ritual is performed: The anonymous coffins known as "transfer cases," each sealed in the Stars and Stripes and marked with a tag, are unloaded, ultimately to be delivered back to their loved ones for burial.

Some in the U.S. media have argued that the rule is a political attempt to downplay the cost of war — which include at least 4,245 members of the U.S. military who have died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003 — especially in light of images from Vietnam that some credit with turning U.S. opinion against that war.

Obama swept into office in part on campaign promises of greater transparency than the Bush administration.

Opponents of the ban argue Americans have a responsibility to pay their respects and consider the reality of being a nation at war when its military is all-volunteer and most people are insulated from the destruction.

Professor filed lawsuit
"It's the biggest single aspect of the cost of war. For that aspect to be invisible, undebated, undiscussed by American people is just wrong," said Ralph Begleiter, a journalism professor at the University of Delaware who sued the Pentagon to force the release in 2005 of pictures taken by military photographers at Dover.

"I felt these images were the single most important way that the American people could see the cost of war," he said.

Controversy in America over photos of war dead goes back as far as the earliest battlefield photography, said David Perlmutter, a documentary photographer and journalism professor at the University of Kansas.

Photography pioneer Matthew Brady was believed to have arranged battlefield death scenes during America's bloody mid-19th century Civil War. During World War I much of the coverage of the war was censored, as it was in World War II before President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided the public needed to see how its soldiers were suffering to avoid complacency.

Vietnam brought the war home, however, in new ways, as television film footage caught the daily grind and blood of war. The coverage was blamed in part for the loss of public support.

Photographs of war dead are a source of such debate because Americans "are most concerned about what happens to our men and women in uniform above all other considerations," Perlmutter said.

An issue in Afghanistan?
The issue could come into play for Obama. Though deaths in Iraq are down, the new president plans to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, which could mean a steady number of soldier's bodies coming back through Dover in transfer cases.

Journalists should be thoughtful if the ban is overturned and avoid excessive coverage, said Kelly McBride, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute journalism think tank.

"The temptation is that because we can, we will," she said. Journalists, excited by the access, could jump at the new opportunity to take photos and release a flood of images that might exaggerate the number of deaths, she said.

"It would be possible to have more coffin photos than homecoming photos, when the reality is that there are more live bodies coming home than dead bodies," she said. "There is an obligation to tell the truth in as complete and full a picture as possible, and coffin photos are part of that."

According to an informal survey of its members by the group Families United, which says it represents 60,000 military families, a majority opposed changing the policy.

John Ellsworth, the group's vice president whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004, argued that if Obama chooses to reverse the ban, he should have the military take photographs and release them to the families, who could then decide whether they want to share them with the media, or see them at all.

"I don't know what happened in Iraq, or at Dover," he said. "There are blank spots where I don't know what happened, but I don't know if I need to."