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Americas

Pentagon lifts war dead media ban

Latest update : 2009-02-27

The Pentagon on Thursday ended a controversial policy preventing media coverage of coffins of dead soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Families will decide whether to allow media to film or photograph coffins.

AFP - Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday lifted a ban on media coverage of the return of flag-draped coffins of fallen soldiers from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reversing a controversial policy dating back to 1991.
   
He left it up to the families to decide whether to allow media to film or photograph the coffins of their dead soldiers at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Gates said at a news conference.
   
"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 said.
   
"We ought not presume to make that decision in their place."
   
Gates said a team of advisers would prepare a plan on how to carry out the new policy, which has been the subject of lawsuits and emotional debate.
   
The ban on media coverage began under former president George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf war.
   
Images of honor guards carrying the coffins from the bellies of military transport planes became a grim symbol of the Vietnam War, and a graphic reminder of the mounting death toll.
   
Former president George W. Bush renewed the ban and was accused of trying to hide the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have claimed the lives of nearly 5,000 American soldiers.
   
Gates said he had ordered a review under the last administration over a year ago but said he reluctantly kept the policy on the advice of his deputies.
   
 "I must say I was never comfortable with it. When I heard the president (Barack Obama) express his concern and desire to have it reviewed, I started the process the next morning," he said.
   
This time he consulted more widely, including with all the armed services and with military families. He saaid a memo from the US Army supporting the change in policy was a key factor in his decision.
   
But Gates said there "still is a division" in the Pentagon over the policy.
   
A CNN and Opinion Research Corporation poll released Thursday showed a majority of Americans backed the decision, with 67 percent saying the public should be allowed to see video and photos of the coffins returning.
   
Gates was joined at the news conference by Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said he strongly supported the change in policy.
   
Mullen said he had visited the Dover air base, the site of the military's largest mortuary, and come away impressed with the ceremonies for the returning war dead.
   
"It is an extraordinarily well-run, dignified, respectful ceremony," Mullen said.
   
"And I am comfortable any American who saw that would be very proud of how that is executed there."
   
The White House welcomed the move, saying it was in line with policy at the Arlington cemetery in the US capital where war dead are buried.
   
"What the secretary's come back with and what the president supports is a policy consistent with that that we have in Arlington cemetery, which allows at the families' permission" for media coverage, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
   
Although the defense secretary said he had spoken to associations of military families, one group, Military Families United, said it was "disappointed" with the decision.
   
The group said before reversing the policy, the Pentagon should have clarified key questions including how it would decide on media access in cases in which families have different preferences.

Date created : 2009-02-27

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