April 23, 2004
Pentagon Ban on Pictures of Dead Troops Is Broken
By BILL CARTER
he Pentagon’s ban on making images of dead soldiers’ homecomings at military bases public was briefly relaxed yesterday, as hundreds of photographs of flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base were released on the Internet by a Web site dedicated to combating government secrecy.
The Web site, the Memory Hole (http://www.thememoryhole.org), had filed a Freedom of Information Act request last year, seeking any pictures of coffins arriving from Iraq at the Dover base in Delaware, the destination for most of the bodies. The Pentagon yesterday labeled the Air Force Air Mobility Command’s decision to grant the request a mistake, but news organizations quickly used a selection of the 361 images taken by Defense Department photographers.
The release of the photographs came one day after a contractor working for the Pentagon fired a woman who had taken photographs of coffins being loaded onto a transport plane in Kuwait. Her husband, a co-worker, was also fired after the pictures appeared in The Seattle Times on Sunday. The contractor, Maytag Aircraft, said the woman, Tami Silicio of Seattle, and her husband, David Landry, had “violated Department of Defense and company policies.”
The firing underscored the strictness with which the Pentagon and the Bush administration have pursued a policy of forbidding news organizations to showing images of the homecomings of the war dead at military bases. They have argued that the policy was put in place during the first war in Iraq, and that it is simply an effort to protect the sensitivities of military families.
Executives at news organizations, many of whom have protested the policy, said last night that they had not known that the Defense Department itself was taking photographs of the coffins arriving home, a fact that came to light only when Russ Kick, the operator of The Memory Hole, filed his request.
“We were not aware at all that these photos were being taken,” said Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times.
John Banner, the executive producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight,” said, “We did not file a F.O.I.A. request ourselves, because this was the first we had known that the military was shooting these pictures.”
The Pentagon has cited a policy, used during the first Persian Gulf war, as its reason for preventing news organizations from showing images of coffins arriving in the United States. That policy was not consistently followed, however, and President Bill Clinton took part in numerous ceremonies honoring dead servicemen. In March 2003, the Pentagon issued a directive it said was established in November 2000, saying, “There will no be arrival ceremonies of, or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to or departing from” air bases.
While critics have charged that the administration is seeking to keep unwelcome images of the war’s human cost away from the American public, the Pentagon has said that only individual services at a gravesite give proper context to the sacrifices of soldiers and their relatives.
“The president believes that we should always honor and show respect for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice defending our freedoms,” Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said last night.
A New York Times/CBS News poll taken in December found that 62 percent of Americans said the public should be allowed to see pictures of the military honor guard receiving the coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq as they are returned to the United States. Twenty-seven percent said the public should not be.
Mr. Kick, who operates his Web site from Tucson, describes himself as “an information archaeologist.” He did not respond to phone calls to his home last night. But on his Web site, he said he had filed a request for “all photographs showing caskets containing the remains of U.S. military personnel at Dover A.F.B.”
After an initial rejection, Mr. Kick said, he appealed on several grounds “and to my amazement the ruling was reversed.” The request was granted by the Air Mobility Command, and the pictures of coffins on planes and at funeral services for slain servicemen were made available to him.
The Pentagon said the pictures had been taken for historical purposes. Lt. Col. Jennifer Cassidy, an Air Force spokeswoman, said at a briefing yesterday that the release had violated the Pentagon’s rules and that no further copies of the pictures would be distributed.
But news organizations widely took the pictures from the Web site last night, as they became one of the biggest news developments of the day. Two networks, ABC and NBC, made the availability of the pictures, along with the firing of Ms. Silicio, the lead item on their newscasts. Numerous newspapers said they planned to use one or more of the photographs on their front pages today, as The Times did.
Among the national television news organizations, only the Fox News Channel had no plans to use any of the photos or explore the issue of why they had been barred from use in the news media, a channel spokesman said.
Steve Capus, the executive producer of “NBC Nightly News,” said he had already considered the firing of Ms. Silicio a major news development and had sent a correspondent to Seattle on Wednesday night. Then the new pictures turned up on Mr. Kick’s Web site. He called the pictures “not in the least gory” but “poignant and responsible” and argued that using them was “a proper part of the national dialogue.” “It would seem that the only reason somebody would come out against the use of these pictures is that they are worried about the political fallout,” Mr. Capus said.
Jim Murphy, the executive producer of the “CBS Evening News,” said: “I don’t necessarily blame the military for trying to manage information in an information age. I just think when you are overzealous in trying to manage it, it serves no good to themselves or to the public.”
Jim Rutenberg in Washington and Mindy Sink in Denver contributed reporting for this article.