- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

The Pentagon announced Thursday that the press is now free to photograph the flag-draped caskets of fallen soldiers as they arrive home from overseas, reversing a ban on the practice initiated by former President George H.W. Bush in 1991 to protect the privacy of mourning families.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the decision to allow press access would rest with loved ones, not official policy.

“We ought not presume to make the decision for the families. We should actually let them make it,” Mr. Gates said, noting that he had received “input” from all branches of the military and family groups.

“I’ll be perfectly honest, there was a division in the building,” Mr. Gates said, adding that he had been particularly affected by an Army memo, which favored a reversal of the ban.

President Obama and some lawmakers supported his decision.

“We should honor - not hide - flag-draped coffins,” said Sen. Frank R. Lautenburg, New Jersey Democrat.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said the revamped policy was sensitive to families “who wanted the entire nation to share in the mourning,” as well as those who preferred the occasion remain private.

The prospect of press access to the caskets has long troubled the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), however. Both organizations feared the solemn moment would be turned into another photo opportunity, or used “for propagandistic purposes,” said David K. Rehbein, the American Legion’s national commander.

“The repatriation of remains is a time of solemnity and respect. We believe it is inappropriate to allow media photography of our fallen heroes, but we would defer to the wishes of the families if respectful accommodations can be made,” Mr. Rehbein said.

“We always supported the ban. The return of our fallen heroes is not a media event. But the decision is up to the families, ultimately,” said Joe Davis, VFW spokesman.

A survey conducted Feb. 18 by Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission, which represents about 60,000 military families and veterans, found that two-thirds of its membership supported the media ban.

Some veterans groups support the reversal, however.

“All too often, the sacrifices of our military are hidden from view. The sight of flag-draped coffins is, and should be, a sobering reminder to all Americans of the ultimate sacrifice our troops have made and the high price of our freedom,” said Paul Rieckhoff, director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

The ban prompted strident political disagreements in the past.

In 2004, unauthorized color photos of flag-covered coffins were published by the Seattle Times and on the Internet. The images were obtained from a private defense contractor who snapped pictures on a cargo plane, and through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed against the U.S. Air Force.

That same year, Democrats accused former President George W. Bush of using the media ban to lessen the impact of war dead as he campaigned for his second term in office.

Meanwhile, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the National Press Photographers Association, the New York Times and other newspapers wanted the media ban overturned in the name of transparency and First Amendment issues.

“Newspapers seek to commemorate the war dead by running photos of their often-smiling faces. The country should also see the reality of their coffins,” said a Times editorial Feb. 15.

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