ARLINGTON, Va. — For the first time in nearly 20 years, members of the news media will be allowed starting Monday to cover the solemn arrivals of American flag-draped coffins holding the remains of U.S. troops at Dover Air Force Base, Del.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued an instruction last week to reverse the two decadeslong ban on media coverage, The Associated Press reported Tuesday, noting that a written memo is expected later this week.
Gates and President Barack Obama had said for months that they wanted to lift the ban once an internal review could be completed. In February, the secretary announced he would start the new policy after an "implementation committee" had canvassed personnel involved in the transfer of casualties, from the battlefield to the cemeteries across the U.S.
The Dover ban was put into effect by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.
The policy drew renewed and sharp criticism after the war in Iraq began in 2003 and casualties began rising to numbers not seen since the Vietnam War. When media were allowed to photograph several caskets at military bases including Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the Pentagon again issued a blanket ban on coverage, but a few exceptions still slipped through.
Opponents and media advocates accused President George W. Bush’s administration of keeping cameras away from coffins — which the military calls "transfer cases" — to stifle the press and prevent stirring further opposition to the war.
"I think it’s a nice compromise between privacy and openness," said Jerome A. Barron, a professor of constitutional and media law at George Washington University.
According to Barron and other scholars, freedom of the press has never been absolute in the eyes of the courts, especially compared to the legacy of privacy protections.
"I don‘t know that it rose to constitutional stature in either direction." That said, he added, "[Supreme Court Justice Louis] Brandeis said that sunlight was the best disinfectant."
The original 1991 order said the military would cease to hold honor ceremonies for the fallen as they return at Dover. Instead, ceremonies would occur in the hometown or final destination of each servicemember. Media thus were banned from attending the Dover segment, but would be allowed to cover final ceremonies at the family’s discretion.
It read: "This policy in no way detracts from the service member’s valor and sacrifice but, instead, permits the ceremony to occur at a location where the service member’s family and friends may more easily attend."