By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 5, 2005
In response to a lawsuit, the Pentagon has released a few dozen new and uncensored images of flag-draped coffins of U.S. troops and agreed to process "as expeditiously as possible" future Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for photo and video images of returning war casualties.
The decision was called a victory for open government by the National Security Archive, a nongovernmental research group here that helped the litigation. "We forced the Pentagon to admit that release of these images was not a mistake but was in fact required by law," said Thomas Blanton, director of the archive, which posted the images on its Web site yesterday. As a result, he said the parties to the suit agreed July 28 to dismiss the case.
University of Delaware professor Ralph Begleiter sued in October 2004, and in April the Pentagon released 721 images of coffins taken by military photographers in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The latest release includes five new images as well as 27 others that had been censored with black rectangles, obscuring the faces of chaplains and service members in honor ceremonies.
Since the Persian Gulf War, the government has gradually tightened restrictions on the public release of images of returning war casualties, most recently at the onset of the Iraq war. The policy has sparked intense debate among the public and military. Some contend the images honor U.S. military sacrifice; others consider them tantamount to an antiwar statement.
The latest controversy arose after Dover Air Force Base, the main port for returning U.S. military remains, released 350 images -- including airplane cargo bays filled with flag-draped coffins -- during a spike in fighting in Iraq in April 2004. The Pentagon said that decision, in response to a FOIA request, was a mistake and ordered that no more photographs be released.
Begleiter's suit was filed to demonstrate that under the act, such photographs must be released as long as they do not harm national security or violate privacy laws.
The Pentagon yesterday said "further consideration" of a Begleiter appeal led it to release the latest photographs in an "unredacted form," meaning without the blacked-out faces. "The Department of Defense has an obligation and a responsibility to strike a balance between our strong desire to be as transparent as possible and the legitimate concerns to protect the privacy of military families and as necessary, operational security," a spokesman said.