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Defense Secretary Gates Reviews Ban on Photographing Coffins of Fallen Soldiers
source: New York Times

Military personnel escorting coffins at Dover Air Force Base in one of hundreds of photographs the Pentagon released in 2004.
Agence France-Presse

Published: February 21, 2009-- Pentagon officials reconsidering the ban on news/photo coverage of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base from Iraq and Afghanistan are studying the media policies of other countries. They are also soliciting the views of families who have lost loved ones.

Those two aspects of the review may well yield opposing perspectives. Britain and Canada, two important allies in the war in Afghanistan, allow far more news media access to the repatriation process - the return of a fallen soldier to his or her country - than does the United States.

But many American families who have lost loved ones say they want to keep the ban, which has been in place since the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

President Obama said on Feb. 9 that he had ordered the review, which the Pentagon said it would complete in a few days.

The new review has revived an old debate. Supporters of the ban say it protects families' privacy and keeps the deaths from becoming politicized; critics say the government is trying to sanitize the wars and reduce public awareness of their human cost.

In the most recent national poll on the issue, conducted in 2003 by The New York Times and CBS News, 62 percent of respondents said the public should be allowed to see photographs of the military honor guard receiving coffins at Dover, in Delaware, while 27 percent opposed the idea. The poll questioned 1,042 people and had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Since Mr. Obama's announcement, Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission, which represents 60,000 families of military personnel, including some who have died, has publicly opposed lifting the ban. The group also asked its members in an e-mail message whether they favored keeping or changing the ban.

Of the roughly 600 people who responded, the group said, 64 percent said the policy should not be changed; 21 percent said that if the ban were changed, the families should be able to determine news media access on a case-by-case basis, and 12 percent said the policy should be changed to allow cameras.

Among the respondents, the group said, was a mother, whose name it withheld to protect her privacy, who wrote: "When our son arrived into Dover A.F.B., my husband had arranged to be there as they took him off of the plane ... we couldn't imagine him being all alone. It was a very private and emotional moment and one that should have belonged only to us. We were inundated by press at our home, at the funeral and for months after, and we were generous with their access, but were very grateful that they weren't allowed to be present at Dover. ... This was our precious son, not a political statement."

But another mother who had lost her son said she favored lifting the ban.

"I am in favor of controlled media coverage at Dover because I feel people need to be made aware of the sacrifice my son and so many other brave men and women have made for their freedom," she wrote.

But if the views of military families suggest the repatriations should be closed, the policies of allies may suggest they be open. Repatriation is more of a national event in Britain and Canada.

In Canada, families decide whether the news media can cover the arrival ceremonies on the tarmac at the air base at Trenton, Ontario. "They can't be under the nose of the family, but they can capture the event," said Capt. Isabelle Riche, the public affairs officer for the base.

In Britain, the Defense Ministry usually takes photographs of the arrival ceremonies at the air base at Lyneham and releases them to the news media. Reporters are sometimes admitted but are also kept at some distance from the families. Accepting government photographs has irritated some British journalists who want more editorial control, particularly if something out of the ordinary happens during the ceremony. Either way, the public sees the pictures.

In Canada and Britain, a cortege leaves the air base for a mortuary about 100 miles away, and television often shows the procession live.

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