The Guardian October 20, 2004


Professor sues for release of coffin photos

US military photographs and videos of the honour guard arrival 
and transfer ceremonies at Dover Air Force Base for servicemen 
and women killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars will be 
released to the public if a journalism professor's Freedom of 
Information (FOI) suit is successful.

"It's all about allowing the American people to accurately and 
completely assess the price of war", said Professor of Journalism 
Ralph Begleiter of the University of Delaware.

"This is not a partisan political issue. The ban on releasing 
such photos has been imposed and supported by governments of both 
parties.

"The Pentagon's claim that personal privacy is the reason for 
blocking release of pictures of soldiers' coffins doesn't make 
sense. The pictures do not identify any individual soldier, and 
the Pentagon has selectively allowed or released pictures when 
the political equation has been different, including when 
Americans were killed in terrorist attacks in Kenya and Tanzania 
and in the attack in Yemen on the USS Cole.

"They even permitted the release of some pictures of returning 
casualties from the Afghanistan conflict", said Professor 
Begleiter.

The lawsuit challenges the censorship policy initiated in 1991 by 
then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, and continued by the 
Pentagon under the Clinton and Bush Administrations.

The 1991 policy reversed the traditional American practice of 
honouring the fallen in solemn public ceremonies centred on flag-
draped caskets. In April 2004, the Air Force Mobility Command 
released under the Freedom of Information Act 361 photographs of 
recent Dover ceremonies, only to have the Defense Department call 
the action a mistake and hold up any further releases.

A Department of Defense Spokesperson, Deputy Under Secretary of 
Defense for Military Community and Family Policy Molino, 
explained "[if] for some reason we find that the policy is 
inconsistent with the FOI Act we'll look at whether or not the 
policy needs to be changed".

Working with the National Security Archive, a research institute 
in foreign affairs that uses the FOI Act to obtain information 
about US government operations, Professor Begleiter has 
systematically requested all still and moving images of the 
return of fallen soldiers to Dover Air Force Base from October 
2001 to the present.

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