Washington, DC, February 26, 2009 - Today Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lifted a blanket ban on news media coverage of the honor guard ceremonies that mark the return of military casualties from abroad. The new policy will permit media coverage of the ceremonies, during which caskets draped with American flags are brought home from war, after consultation with the families of the fallen. The Obama administration's move restores press access to the honor ceremonies, which had been the practice from World War II through the Panama invasion of 1989. During the lead-up to the Gulf War in 1991, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney instituted the ban. The news media lost a first amendment challenge to the ban, but Professor Ralph Begleiter and the National Security Archive forced the release of hundreds of images taken by military photographers under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 2005.
Professor Begleiter, the long-time CNN correspondent who is the Rosenberg Professor of Communications and Distinguished Journalist in Residence at the University of Delaware, filed the lawsuit with the National Security Archive in 2004 to compel release of DOD's own images of the honor ceremonies under the FOIA. Once it became clear that the government had no basis for withholding the images under the FOIA, the military stopped taking photos documenting the return of fallen soldiers.
"This reversal of two decades of policy is an important and welcome milestone for the American people. This decision restores to its rightful, honorable place the immense value of the sacrifice American troops make on behalf of their nation," said Professor Begleiter. "The Pentagon's reversal of the news media ban should also result in the military itself returning immediately to documenting with its own photographers the honorable return of war casualties -- and making those images public. That public documentation by the government should not be subject to anyone's veto."
"Dick Cheney's original ban on media coverage in the lead-up to the Gulf War was clearly meant to hide the cost of war. It reversed decades of respectful open media access," explained Tom Blanton, the Archive's director. "The release of honor ceremony photos in 2005 shows how respectful treatment of fallen soldiers was, and we expect the media coverage to be similarly respectful."
Archive general counsel Meredith Fuchs commented, "Overturning a DOD policy that dates back 18 years while trying to ensure the respect that we owe to the fallen is a real change in policy by the Obama administration."
Visit the Web site of the National Security Archive for more information.
(source: National Security Archive)