In his Aug. 21 letter to the editor responding to Robert Novak's Aug. 5 op-ed column, "Our First Casualties," Gen. John M. Keane, the U.S. Army's vice chief of staff, asserted that the Department of Defense has a long-standing policy of not inviting media to the return of remains at Dover Air Force Base out of concern for the privacy of families. Dover is the point of entry for the return of American servicemen killed abroad. Gen. Keane's statement is misleading if not erroneous. Dover is closed due to the Pentagon's sensitivities toward casualty issues. Perhaps Gen. Keane is not familiar with the history of this issue.

One of the most famous incidents involving Dover and American casualties occurred during the invasion of Panama. Following the arrest of Manuel Noriega, President Bush held a gleeful press conference to celebrate the event. At the same time, dead servicemen were arriving at Dover. Most networks broadcast the two events simultaneously on split screens. President Bush received much criticism for this.

The Pentagon closed Dover in January 1991, just prior to Desert Storm. Presumably Pentagon officials did not want a media frenzy to develop around the return of body bags from the impending Gulf War. At the time, the Bush administration was concerned that heavy casualties would undermine public support for the operation. Closing Dover meant that the media would be denied that opportunity to focus on casualties.

Since then, the Pentagon has chosen to enforce this ban rather selectively. For example, after the 1998 terrorist attack against U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salam, the Pentagon allowed reporters to cover the arrival of the victims' coffins at Dover.

Thus, where it served the purpose of strengthening public outrage, the media were welcome. Where it might have helped open a debate on U.S. involvement in Colombia, the media were no longer welcome.

PASCALE C. SIEGEL

McLean