Pentagon rules change swings pendulum back toward media ban on Dover coffin returns


The Pentagon has amended its policy regarding media coverage of the flag-draped coffins of dead U.S. service members returning to Dover AFB. Families now have the power to permit military cameras to record the event and ban independent news media from doing the same.

But why?

The base policy remains: families are asked by military officials before the U.S. arrival of their deceased relative if they will allow media coverage of the “dignified transfer” (Don’t call it a ceremony.) of “transfer cases” (Don’t call them coffins.) arriving from the Overseas Contingency Operation (Don’t call it the war in Afghanistan.)

Previously, if the family said "no" - nothing was recorded by anyone.  If they said “yes”, the event was recorded by independent media, usually a single AP photographer, as well as Defense Department video and still cameras.

Now, families can ask for Pentagon photographers, but reject the media presence, effectively banning public from seeing images of the event until a later time, which seems a reversion against the Pentagon's pledge of greater media transparency.

There is background madness to this method. When the Pentagon of the previous Bush administration banned news photographers and reporters from Dover AFB from covering the return of dead American bodies from war, the department said their policy was to protect military families from _____.

You can fill-in-the-blank with whatever Pentagon spin you want. They didn’t want the American public to see 4,000+ coffins offloaded from cargo planes between 2001 and 2009 – and you didn’t.

(Actually the ban dates to the 1990s after the U.S. invasion of Panama, when a network nightly news program broadcast a split screen image of returning flag-draped coffins on one half and President George H. W. Bush laughing at a separate event on the other half. So much for media coverage at Dover.)

Media newsrooms and public watchdogs protested that the public deserved a record of the war in its entirety, espeically back in 2001 and 2003, when the idea and imagery of America at war was so impactful.

The line went: if the Pentagon was going to allow news crews to record the happily cheering families running across tarmacs to greet their returning heroes, journalists must also be allowed to document those who come home from the most controversial war since Vietnam in boxes – the practical impact of policy decisions.

The Pentagon said such a record did exist: their own defense department media crews recorded the Dover returns and families could get copies. Some family members simply could not make the last-minute trip to Delaware to meet their loved ones’ remains.

One problem: the U.S. public – including news organizations – could request to see those supposedly private pictures and recordings per the Freedom of Information Act. That’s how several photos of military coffins – er, “transfer cases” – were published in the early years of the Iraq war.

So the Pentagon stopped its internal recording entirely. As a result, hundreds of fallen warriors and victims of the longest war in U.S. history came home in the dark.

This year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reversed the total ban, but approved a complex set of rules.

A Washington Post article last week discovered that the policy had been changed. Now, families can once again choose to have only the Pentagon record the event, but ban the media.

I doubt many news organizations will submit FOIA requests for those images. Few news organizations attend Dover arrivals. The base is a good 2-3 hour drive from Washington, D.C. Nobody maintains camera crews there. When a spectacular event occurs – like the stress clinic shooting where 5 troops were murdered – more show up (22 separate news organizations for that one, including Stars and Stripes). The AP is the only news organization recording each return they are permitted – as hometown papers usually want to publish the image.

And its unclear if the base and the Pentagon would honor timely media requests for images of arrival ceremonies the press was shut out from. How long will it take?  The FOIA process is not known for its expediency. One defense writer last week told me he just received a pile of Defense Department documents that he had requested several years ago.

But here’s a new fact to go with the new policy: in the past six months, 15 percent of all families have chosen the option of DoD-only recording, the Post reported. Along with the 60 percent already allowing media on the tarmac, that means fully 75 percent of the families who were asked if they wanted SOME publicly available recording of their loved one’s return have said YES.

For Secretary Gates, the question of media coverage has always been about the family's wishes. 

For others, even if 100 percent of the familes agreed to media coverage, the choice should not be left to them. War is a decision made by elected officials and servants beholden to the public, including military service members.  The record of war, they say, also belongs to the public.


UPDATE: Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said on Tuesday that the issue of FOIA had come up early in the deliberations over rules on Dover media coverage, which they had wanted to remain "family centric". So why the change?  The department wanted to give famililes who could not make the trip to Dover an option to have a video copy, he said.

"We've always offered a video to family members if they've requested it from a government camera out at Dover," he said. 

Families of the dead are informed that if they choose that government-recorded option only, the imagery and video is still available to the public via FOIA, Whitman said. He pushed back at the notion that 75 percent of families have said "yes" to coverage, when just 57.5 percent have accepted full media coverage.

"They believe  - you have to kind of put yourself in their shoes - they believe that all they're getting is a tape of the situation. Their expectation is that it will never be shown," Whitman said, because the media already has plenty of Dover images to tell their story.

"Nobody's going to FOIA that stuff," he said. "The media have access to what they want, the families have what they want, if they can't make it."


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