WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has decided to rescind a long-standing prohibition against press coverage of returning war dead, allowing families to say whether news organizations may photograph the arrivals, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday.
The remains of all U.S. service members killed overseas are flown to Delaware's Dover Air Force Base. But photographic images have been prohibited since 1991. The administration of President George W. Bush rigorously enforced the ban, preventing pictures of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan from appearing in news coverage.
The new policy will leave it up to the families of slain service members to decide whether to allow the media to photograph the arrival of the remains in Dover.
"My conclusion was, we should not presume to make the decision for the families. We should actually let them make it," Gates said.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 01, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 70 words Type of Material: Correction
Military photo ban: An article in Friday's Section A about the end of the ban on photographing the return of war dead to Delaware's Dover Air Force Base said a survey by Military Families United showed that 84% of families opposed removal of the ban. It was 64%. Also, the article should have noted that the survey was conducted by e-mail and lacked the methodological rigor of a scientific poll.
The question of media access has deeply divided the military as well as veterans and family groups.
Some favored keeping the ban, and others wanted to give families the option of allowing the media in, said Joyce Raezer, the executive director of the National Military Family Assn.
"We are hoping whatever comes out of this new policy accommodates a variety of wishes," she said.
Gates has assigned a group of Pentagon officials to work out details. Concerns include: what to do if a flight is carrying remains of several service members and families are divided over access, or what services will be provided for families who want to be present for the return.
Many Pentagon officials have worried that opening up Dover will result in pressure on families to go to the base to meet the arriving flights. If they do, Raezer said, the military needs to be prepared with chaplains, counselors and lodging.
"If they are going to open it up to families, do they have the capability of assisting those families?" she said. "There are lots of unanswered questions."
One organization, Military Families United, said a survey of military families found that 84% opposed changing the policy.
"We are pretty disappointed in the president's decision to overturn the ban," said John Ellsworth, the group's president, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004. "This is a complete disregard for the will of America's military families and their need for privacy during this solemn moment."
Ellsworth said he would not have wanted to choose whether to leave his grieving family and go to Dover to receive the body of his son, Justin.
"I don't believe my family would have been best served for me to go to Dover," he said. "But I would have felt torn if I had to make the decision."
Gates said he had been opposed to the media ban and first considered dropping it a year ago. At that time, he asked officials to review the prohibition. Those reviewing the policy recommended keeping it unchanged, and Gates decided to accept the recommendation. The Bush White House was not involved in that review, he said.
But the day after President Obama said this month that he wanted to revisit the issue, Gates launched a new, wider review.
"I talked directly with the senior leadership of the services and solicited their views," Gates said. "I'll be perfectly honest about it. There was a division in the building."
Gates said everyone in the military -- on both sides of the issue -- was motivated by trying to help the families of fallen service members.
"People were all trying to do what was right by the families," Gates said. "It just seemed to me that we ought to let the families make that decision."