Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday ordered a review of a military policy that bans the media from taking photographs of U.S. soldiers’ caskets as they’re flown into Dover Air Force Base. His announcement came less than 24 hours after President Obama spoke on the issue at his first prime time press conference.
"From a personal standpoint, I think, if the needs of the families can be met and the privacy concerns can be addressed, the more honor we can accord these fallen heroes, the better," the defense secretary said, according to a transcript of his comments at a press conference. "So I’m pretty open to whatever the results of this review may be."
Gates said he asked the White House about a year ago if the policy at Dover might be changed. In addition to privacy concerns, he said Bush administration officials responded that family members of the deceased soldiers might feel compelled to be at the base for services honoring their family member, and that could be financially burdensome for them.
At the prime time press conference Monday night, Obama did not give a clear answer when CNN’s Ed Henry asked if he supported the current ban. But the president said his administration is in talks with the Department of Defense on the matter.
"I don’t want to give you an answer now before I’ve evaluated that review and understand all the implications involved," the president told Henry.
In an e-mail to the Reporters Committee, Lt. Col. Les Melnyk, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Dover ban was reaffirmed after Gates’ review a year ago, "based on the input of families of the fallen." But based on the president’s comments last night, he said Gates has now directed a new review with a short deadline for a recommendation to the president.
While the ban on media coverage of military caskets arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware has been a matter of policy since 1991, exceptions had been made during President George H.W. Bush’s administration. But in 2003, at the beginning of the Iraq War, the Pentagon banned coverage of all "deceased military personnel returning to or departing from" air bases, citing privacy rights of those killed and their families.
The U.S. Senate let the policy stand in 2004, voting against legislation that would have instructed the Department of Defense to develop rules allowing photographers to cover the arrival and departure of the flag-draped caskets.
CNN’s Henry noted that Vice President and former Delaware Senator Joe Biden, in 2004, called it "shameful" for dead soldiers to be "snuck back into the country under the cover of night." The policy has faced opposition from photographers, First Amendment advocates and some families of deceased soldiers.