Department redactions obscure the faces and insignia of honor
guard members in many of the war casualty images.
Obama Administration Lifts Blanket Ban on Media Coverage of the Return of Fallen Soldiers
Policy changed 18 years after Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney
banned news media from covering honor ceremonies at Dover Air Force Base
For More Information Contact:
Ralph Begleiter, University of Delaware (302) 831-2687
Meredith Fuchs, General Counsel, National Security Archive (202) 994-7000
Thomas Blanton, Director, National Security Archive (202) 994-7000
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.
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.”
of DOD Policy on Images of the Honors Provided to American Casualties
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Media reporting of the return of fallen soldiers to the United
States and ceremonies honoring American military personnel killed
overseas have long figured heavily in the nation's collective
mourning. During the Vietnam War, these images appeared regularly
on television and in print news sources. In the 1980's, as well,
media reporting concerning honor rituals and ceremonies for soldiers
- 1980: President Carter was photographed at Arlington praying
over flag-draped coffins bearing the remains of the eight U.S.
airmen killed in the aborted rescue of the Tehran Embassy hostages.
- 1983: President Reagan was present at Andrews AFB for a ceremony
for American diplomatic and military personnel killed in the
April bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. He was photographed
in front of a row of flag-draped coffins bearing the remains
of military and diplomatic personnel. Within a few days of the
ceremony photographs were provided to the media by the White
- 1985: President Reagan attended a ceremony at Andrews AFB
for military personnel killed in El Salvador, pinning purple
hearts on their flag-draped caskets. The event was covered by
- 1989: The media covered ceremonies at Norfolk, Virginia for
47 U.S. sailors killed in an accidental explosion aboard the
battleship U.S.S. Iowa.
Media coverage at Dover AFB led to a controversy during the Panama
- December 21, 1989: The day after the U.S. invaded Panama,
the first U.S. casualties from the action were returned to Dover
Air Force Base. At the same time, President George H.W. Bush
held his first news conference since the invasion. Three networks
(ABC, CBS and CNN) chose to broadcast the two events in split
screen, allowing viewing of both events at the same time. President
Bush appeared to be joking during the news conference, despite
the solemn ceremony taking place onscreen at Dover Air Force
Base, resulting in calls from viewers complaining to the White
House about the broadcasts.
The practice of permitting media coverage of fallen soldiers'
return to the United States was curtailed in 1991, during the
- February 2, 1991: "Media coverage of the arrival of
 remains at the port of entry or at the interim stops will
not be permitted…" Public Affairs Guidance - Operation
Desert Storm, Casualty and Mortuary Affairs, Office of the Secretary
of Defense (Arlington, VA), Feb. 2, 1991.
There have been many occasions since that time, however, when
exceptions were made to permit media coverage.
- April 1996: The media photographed the arrival and transfer
ceremony at Dover AFB for the remains of Commerce Secretary
Ron Brown and 32 other Americans killed when their plane crashed
in Croatia. President Clinton was present to receive the flag-draped
- August 1998: The media photographed the arrival ceremony at
Andrews AFB for Americans killed in simultaneous bombings of
our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya; the Pentagon released a
number of photographs as well, including one showing the transfer
of the coffins at Ramstein AFB.
- October 2000: The Defense Department distributed photographs
of caskets arriving at Dover AFB bearing the remains of military
personnel killed in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole.
- March 2001: The Defense Department released photographs of
caskets being transferred at Ramstein AFB; the caskets bore
the remains of six military personnel killed in a training accident
- September 2001: The Department of the Air Force published
a photograph of the arrival and transfer at Dover AFB of the
remains of a victim in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.
- October 7, 2001: Military action commenced in Afghanistan.
- November 2001: Department of Defense restated the ban on media
coverage at Dover AFB and at Ramstein AFB.
- November 2001: The media was given access to Andrews AFB for
the arrival and transfer of Johnny Micheal Spann's remains;
Mr. Spann was the first American to die in the invasion of Afghanistan.
- March 2002: The media photographed the arrival at Ramstein
AFB of seven flag-draped caskets carrying the remains of U.S.
soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
- April 2002: The media was permitted to photograph the transfer
of flag-draped coffins at Ramstein AFB that carried the remains
of four U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
- February 2003: NASA released photographs showing the transfer
of the space shuttle Columbia astronauts' remains at Dover AFB.
- March 2003: Defense Department issued an expanded policy banning
media coverage of fallen soldiers' caskets.
- March 2003: The media was permitted to photograph the loading
of six flag-draped coffins in Kabul, Afghanistan destined for
Dover AFB. The soldiers were killed in hostilities in Afghanistan.
- March 20, 2003: Military action commenced in Iraq.
- March 26, 2003: Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Military
Community and Family Policy Molino Briefing on Casualty Notification
discussed the policy barring media coverage as part of a broader
discussion of casualty notification procedures. This appears
to be the first public discussion of the policy by the military
since the initiation of the 2001 Afghanistan and 2003 Iraq conflicts.
- November 2003: Photographs of a Korean War soldier's remains
as they were unloaded at Hickam AFB (Hawaii) are released to
the media by the Defense Department. The coffin was draped with
a flag -- identical to those caskets currently returning from
- November 2003: Russ Kick filed a Freedom of Information Act
request for images of the honor guard ritual at Dover Air Force
Base taken from February 2003 to the Present. The request was
denied and Mr. Kick files an administrative appeal.
- As of March 29, 2004: Dover Air Force Base Mortuary maintained
a home page which included a photograph of flag draped caskets
being returned to Dover in a transport aircraft. This web site
has since been taken offline. See http://www.thememoryhole.org/war/coffin_photos/
(final image on the page).
- April 14, 2004: 361 images of soldiers' and astronauts' flag
draped caskets being handled at Dover Air Force Base were released
to Russ Kick of thememoryhole.org in response to an administrative
appeal of a Freedom of Information Act request.
- April 22, 2004: Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Military
Community and Family Policy Molino Briefing on Remains Transfer
Policy in response to questions about exceptions to the media
ban says "I don't know that there's a general standard
or a threshold through which you have to pass to say by golly
that's the one we'd have to waive it for." He further explains
"There have been exceptions to the policy, you're absolutely
correct; and they're directed by my superiors when that occurs.
I don't know what would go in to say that we've crossed that
- November 22, 2004: Air
Force correspondence responding to FOIA request,
including CR-Rom of images previously provided to Russ Kick
and an e-mail describing the dates the images were taken. Correspondence
denies other pending FOIA requests, stating that there are no
images of caskets containing the remains of U.S. military personnel
received at any U.S. military facility from April 1, 2004-September
- December 28, 2004: Joint
Motion for Abeyance filed to permit administrative
processing of appeal and additional searching for images.
- February 25, 2005: Joint
Status Report filed describing status of administrative
processing of request.
- March 25, 2005: Plaintiff's
Status Report filed describing the absence of substantive
responses and indicating that plaintiff intends to request that
the stay be lifted and to file a motion for summary judgment.
- April 8, 2005: Letter
from Department of Justice advising that "[a]fter
searching numerous components of the Department of Defense both
within and outside the Air Force, the Department of Defense
has located several hundred images that are responsive to Mr.
Begleiter's request .… The Department of Defense intends
to provide these images …."
- April 15, 2005: Letter
from Department of Defense advising that "the
Department of Defense has located several hundred photographic
images that are responsive to your request. These images are
in addition to the 361 images previously provided to you."
CD-ROM with 81 images from Defense Visual Information Center
and 11 images from US Air Force in Europe.
- April 25, 2005: "Final
response" from Department of Defense to April
23, 2004 request for images "released to Russ Kick on April
14, 2004 and for all photographs of caskets containing the remains
of U.S. military personnel received at any U.S. military facility
between October 7, 2001, the commencement of military action
in Afghanistan, and the present." Enclosing a CD-ROM with
"268 unredacted and partially redacted photographic images
[from] … the United States Army, the United States Air
Force, and the Defense Visual Information Center (DVIC)."
No video provided.
- June 3, 2005: Plaintiff's counsel, Daniel Mach, writes defendants'
counsel at Department of Justice expressing concerns about the
redactions in the images in the April release and the adequacy
of the search, citing evidence that other images existed on
internal military web sites, and noting the April release included
duplicate images with one version redacted and the other released
- June 21, 2005: Defendants' counsel, Jeffrey M. Smith, responds
with a letter indicating that the Department of Defense intended
to release unredacted versions of 26 images previously released
in censored forms, and five new images.
- July 18, 2005: The parties in the lawsuit submit a joint status
report to the court documenting the substantial releases by
the Department of Defense in response to the lawsuit, including
721 images to date.
- July 20, 2005: Plaintiff Ralph Begleiter receives undated
letter from the Department of Defense with a CD containing what
the letter describes as 27 unredacted photos that were previously
redacted in the April release, and 6 unredacted photos and 2
redacted photos that were not previously released.
- July 22, 2005: Plaintiff Ralph Begleiter receives a Freedom
of Information response letter from the Department of Defense,
dated July 15, pledging processing "as expeditiously as
possible" and assigning a case number and an action officer
to Begleiter's ongoing FOIA requests for images and video of
the fallen soldier homecoming ceremonies from the period subsequent
to that covered by the lawsuit requests.
- July 28, 2005: The parties to the lawsuit agree to a stipulated
dismissal of the case.