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Pentagon to roll back ban on military casket photos

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In clear rejection of an 18-year-old military policy, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Thursday that photographers will once again be allowed…

In clear rejection of an 18-year-old military policy, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Thursday that photographers will once again be allowed at Dover Air Force Base to document the return of fallen troops’ caskets from war.

So long as the families of the dead agree, Gates said, the news media will be allowed in to document the solemn arrival ceremonies at the Delaware base. A Pentagon spokesperson wrote in an e-mail to the Reporters Committee:

As Secretary Gates announced this afternoon, the policy at Dover and other (casket) transfer points will be modified so that the controlling issue will be the desires of the families of those who have died.

The Secretary has designated a Working Group to make recommendations in short order regarding how to implement the revised policy. This work is being done in consultation with the families of the fallen to ensure their concerns are addressed. The working group is also looking at ways to alleviate the hardships that these families face in cases where they choose to come to Dover for the transfer, and will make recommendations to the Secretary on these matters.

"The repeal of the Dover policy is very good news," said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish. "Americans have a right to the entire picture of what happens in wartime. An important component of war coverage is documenting and reporting the way we recognize those soldiers and sailors who make the ultimate sacrifice for their country."

Gates’ announcement came just weeks after President Obama signaled at a press conference he wanted the Pentagon to consider reversing the restrictive policy first implemented in 1991, for the first Gulf War.

But the ban, which has since been expanded to other U.S. military bases, wasn’t uniformly enforced for much of the next decade. It gained renewed currency in President Bush’s first term, with the Pentagon reiterating the policy in a bid, it said, to protect the mourning families’ privacy on the eve of the Iraq war.

Lawmakers in Congress and open-government advocates alike have tried at various times to knock down the ban, which effectively blocks from public view the very sight of the flag-draped coffins. At one point a Freedom of Information Act request to the Air Force did turn up a series of such photos; at another, in 2004, a government contractor lost her job when a photo she took of coffins on a cargo airplane leaving Kuwait was published in The Seattle Times.

But for the most part the ban has been airtight.

According to the Associated Press, more than 4,250 U.S. service members have died in the Iraq war and more than 580 have perished in and around Afghanistan.