Feb. 26, 2009— -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates has lifted the Pentagon's ban on media coverage of the flag-draped caskets of America's war dead returning to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, leaving it up to each family to decide whether it wants media coverage.
If family members agree to grant media access, the military will suggest guidelines for how much coverage to allow. This will be similar to the policy in place at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia regarding media coverage.
"We should not presume to make the decision for the families; we should actually let them make it," Gates told Pentagon reporters today.
Gates said the details of what options would be made available to families would be worked out soon.
The new policy reverses a ban put into effect in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush. But a few exceptions to the policy were made in the years prior to the administration of George W. Bush. For example, the return to Dover of the flag-draped caskets of the sailors killed in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole was open to media coverage.
But criticism of the ban mounted as the number of casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued to mount, and some contended the Bush administration was trying to hide the human cost of war.
Saying he was "never comfortable" with the ban, Gates launched a review of the ban last summer but left it in place after he was advised that families might feel uncomfortable with media coverage or feel pressure to attend ceremonies at Dover.
Gates said he initiated the latest review after hearing President Obama express concerns about that policy during his first news conference two weeks ago.
Gates acknowledged there was a difference of opinion within the Pentagon about whether a change in the policy was warranted.
"I'll be perfectly honest about it. There was a division in the building ... and I sided with those who thought that the issue ought to be up to the families." But, he said, whatever differences existed were motivated by a desire "to do what was right by the families of our fallen."
Families' Wishes Held Sway
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said the families were a priority in his support of the decision. "We've seen so many families go through so much and meeting their needs, their requests in the most dignified, respectful focused way we can was very much a driver for me in supporting this change."
Gates said the input he received from family members and veterans groups was instrumental in his decision. "I would say that the reaction we got from the organizations associated with the families strongly reinforced the decision of where I was headed," he said.
The first images of flag draped coffins from the war in Iraq were published in April 2004 by the Seattle Times, which printed a photograph taken by a military contractor inside of a military aircraft transporting several flag-draped caskets back to the United States.
In 2005, following a Freedom of Information request, the Pentagon publicly released hundreds more internal photographs of flag-draped coffins being transported aboard military aircraft.