A website dedicated to publishing censored pictures and documents released dozens of photographs of coffins containing American war dead, which caused the Pentagon on Thursday to renew its ban on releasing such images to the media.
Pictures of flag-draped coffins filling aircraft cargo bays and being unloaded by white-gloved soldiers were obtained by Russ Kick, a 1st Amendment activist in Tucson who won their release by filing a Freedom of Information Act request.
Air Force officials initially denied the request but relented last week and sent him more than 350 pictures of Iraq war dead arriving at the military's largest mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
The unexpected posting of the photos on the Internet caught the Pentagon by surprise and provoked a ripple of media attention to pictures the government had been trying to suppress. Several major newspapers planned to publish the newly released photos on their front pages today.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 24, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
War casualties -- Captions for two photographs in Section A on Friday described coffins carrying U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq. The coffins, however, could have come from either Iraq or Afghanistan. See story, A9.
Soon after the photographs were posted on the Web, the Department of Defense barred their further release to other media outlets, saying the photos violated the privacy of troops' families.
Military officials said that the media have been banned from taking pictures and videos of returning war dead since 1991 and that release of the Dover photographs was a clear violation of this policy.
"Quite frankly, we don't want the remains of our service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice to be the subject of any kind of attention that is unwarranted or undignified," said John Molino, a deputy undersecretary of defense.
There have been exceptions to the policy. Molino said he could not explain what conditions prompt a public ceremony.
"At Dover, as a rule, there is no ceremony. It's a ritual more than a ceremony, to my mind," he said.
The Pentagon's insistence that the images should remain censored also came one day after two military contract employees in Kuwait were fired for taking pictures of flag-draped coffins there and sending one to the Seattle Times, which published it Sunday.
Maytag Aircraft Corp. said that it had fired Tami Silicio, 50, and her husband, David Landry, because they "violated Department of Defense and company policies by working together" to take and publish the photograph, company President William L. Silva said in a news release Thursday.
The picture shows several workers inside a cargo plane parked at Kuwait International Airport securing 20 flag-draped coffins for the trip to Dover. Silicio, who took the picture, told the newspaper that she hoped it would portray the care and devotion with which civilian and military crews treat the remains of fallen troops.
"It wasn't my intent to lose my job or become famous or anything," Silicio said.
Government and military leaders acknowledge that such images carry power and can sway public opinion.
In 1999, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, said a decision to use military force was based in part on whether it would pass "the Dover test," as the public witnessed the images of the war dead arriving home.
However, at a news briefing Thursday, Molino said the policy was not driven by concerns of public opinion.
"It's a policy that reflects what the families have told us they would like by way of the treatment of remains of the loved ones who have made that sacrifice," Molino said.
"Keep in mind that any media coverage at a graveside, for instance, is entirely up to the families," Molino said. "The appropriateness of that, the degree to which they want the press at the individual family services, is entirely up to them. But what we're talking about is the policy that deals with the transfer of remains along the way."
In a perhaps ironic twist Thursday, military officials said that the pictures posted on Kick's website, the Memory Hole, thememoryhole.org, were taken not by media photographers but by military personnel.
At a news conference, Lt. Col. Jennifer Cassidy, an Air Force spokeswoman, said the photographs were taken for historical purposes.
Several news executives said Thursday that they had not known about the existence of such photographs, a fact that came to light only when Kick filed his request.
"We were not aware at all that these photos were being taken," Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, was quoted as saying in the paper today.
Two networks, ABC and NBC, made the availability of the pictures the lead item on their newscasts. Numerous newspapers told Associated Press that they planned to publish one or more of the photographs in today's editions.
"This was the first we had known that the military was shooting these pictures," said Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight."
At the Seattle Times, photo editor Barry Fitzsimmons said that the decision to run Silicio's picture was "an easy call" and that the paper had been getting "90% positive feedback."
The paper did not plan to run the Dover Air Force Base photos, however.
Many papers did plan to, including the Los Angeles Times.
"This is about government censorship, not sensitivity," said Colin Crawford, L.A. Times' assistant managing editor for photography.
At the Boston Globe, Michael Larkin, deputy managing editor for news operations, said, "We are using two of the photos.
"I don't know how that can be disrespectful to the families. They are official photos of flag-draped coffins being treated with respect by military personnel."
Times staff writers John Hendren in Washington, Andrew Blankstein in Los Angeles and Times wire services contributed to this report.