Media Ban Lifted For Bodies' Return

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced yesterday that he is lifting a 1991 government ban on news coverage of the return of the remains of fallen service members to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and will let families decide whether to allow photographs and videos.

The ban, upheld by both Republican and Democratic administrations, has generated lawsuits as well as conflicting emotions on the part of military families.

"After receiving input from a number of sources, including all of the military services and the organizations representing military families, I have decided that the decision regarding media coverage of the dignified transfer process at Dover should be made by those most directly affected: on an individual basis by the families of the fallen," Gates told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. "We ought not presume to make that decision in their place."

Gates said he is asking a group of advisers to come up with a plan quickly to implement the new policy.

"I was never comfortable with it," Gates said of the ban, which he reviewed a year ago. But he said splits had existed among senior Pentagon leaders over the issue. "There was a division in the building," he said. "I sided with those who thought that . . . the issue ought to be up to the families."

In a CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll conducted last week, 67 percent of respondents said coverage of the return of remains should be allowed and 31 percent said it should not.

Vice President Biden applauded the decision and said he had also urged Gates to look into ways to better assist families in recovering the remains of their loved ones. "Some, for example, have difficulty getting to Dover. . . . The Department of Defense is looking into that," he said.

President George H.W. Bush's administration imposed the ban on media coverage of the solemn return of flag-draped coffins at the base during the Gulf War in February 1991.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen said at the news conference that he strongly supports allowing media to cover the military honor guard ceremonies transferring the remains. "Any American who saw that would be very proud of how that is executed," he said.

Pictures of casualties have long played into the politics of a war -- most notably in Vietnam, dubbed the "living room war" for its extensive television coverage. Indeed, starting in the 1990s, politicians and generals used the term "the Dover test" to describe the public's tolerance for troop casualties.

Past administrations made notable exceptions to the ban. Under President Bill Clinton in October 2000, the Pentagon distributed photographs of coffins arriving at Dover bearing the remains of military personnel killed in the bombing of the USS Cole. Under President George W. Bush in September 2001, the Air Force published a photo of the transfer at Dover of the remains of a victim of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

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