More Information Contact:
Ralph Begleiter, University of Delaware (302) 831-2687
Meredith Fuchs, General Counsel, National Security Archive (202)
Thomas Blanton, Director, National Security Archive (202) 994-7000
Daniel Mach, Counsel, Jenner & Block (202) 637-6313
Washington, D.C., April 28, 2005 - In response
to Freedom of Information Act requests and a lawsuit, the Pentagon
this week released hundreds of previously secret images of casualties
returning to honor guard ceremonies from the Afghanistan and Iraq
wars and other conflicts, confirming that images of their flag-draped
coffins are rightfully part of the public record, despite its
earlier insistence that such images should be kept secret.
One year after the start of a series of Freedom
of Information Act requests filed by University of Delaware Professor
Ralph Begleiter with the assistance of the National Security Archive,
and six months after a lawsuit charging the Pentagon with failing
to comply with the Act, the Pentagon made public more than 700
images of the return of American casualties to Dover Air Force
Base and other U.S. military facilities, where the fallen troops
received honor guard ceremonies. The Pentagon officially refers
to the photos as "images of the memorial and arrival ceremonies
for deceased military personnel arriving from overseas."
Many of the images show evidence of censorship, which the Pentagon
says is intended to conceal identifiable personal information
of military personnel involved in the homecoming ceremonies.
Begleiter's lawsuit is supported by the National
Security Archive and the Washington, D.C. office of the law firm
Jenner & Block. "This is an important victory for the
American people, for the families of troops killed in the line
of duty during wartime, and for the honor of those who have made
the ultimate sacrifice for their country," said Begleiter,
a former CNN Washington correspondent who teaches journalism and
political science at the University of Delaware. "This significant
decision by the Pentagon should make it difficult, if not impossible,
for any U.S. government in the future to hide the human cost of
war from the American people."
The Pentagon's decision preempted a court ruling
in the lawsuit by U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan. "We
are gratified that these important public records were released
without the need for further court action," said Daniel Mach
of Jenner & Block. The Pentagon ban on media coverage of returning
war casualties was initiated in January 1991 by then Secretary
of Defense Dick Cheney during the administration of President
George H. W. Bush, just weeks before the start of the Gulf War
"I have never considered the release of images
as a political issue," said Begleiter, noting that both Republican
and Democratic administrations imposed the image ban. "But,
seeing the cost of war, like any highly-charged political issue,
can have strong political consequences."
Begleiter's Freedom of Information Act requests,
and the lawsuit, asked for release of both still and video images.
The Pentagon's "final response" in the case includes
no video images of the honor ceremonies for returning war casualties.
"I'm surprised at this," said Begleiter, "because
the U.S. military uses video and film technology extensively in
its public relations efforts."
Thomas Blanton, Director of the National Security
Archive, which actively uses the Freedom of Information Act to
force release of government documents, said, "The government
now admits it was wrong to keep these images secret. Hiding the
cost of war doesn't make that cost any less. Banning the photos
keeps flag-draped coffins off the evening news, but it fundamentally
disrespects those who have made the ultimate sacrifice."
Blanton and Begleiter noted one major negative consequence
of the dispute over the images: the Pentagon appears to have stopped
creating the photos in the first place. All the released images
containing date information appear to have been taken prior to
June 2004. Military officials told Begleiter and the news media
that such photos were no longer being taken since his first Freedom
of Information Act request was filed in April 2004.
Begleiter said, "Hiding these images from the
public - or, worse, failing even to record these respectful moments
- deprives all Americans of the opportunity to recognize their
contribution to our democracy, and hinders policymakers and historians
in the future from making informed judgments about public opinion
and war." He called on the Pentagon to resume fully documenting
the return of American casualties.
Although some of the newly released images include
dates, locations and other information, the Pentagon censored
that information from most of the released images. Some of the
censorship, or, as the Pentagon prefers to call it, "redaction,"
blacks out faces, identifying features on equipment, and uniform
styles. In one case, for example, a clergyman's identity is censored,
while in another image, a different clergyman remains unredacted.
"I cannot imagine that the members of these
honor guards want their own faces blacked out from the public
homage that is due," Blanton said. "Honor guard is the
most solemn duty for anybody in the military, not something for
the censors to hide."
The photos released by the Pentagon were taken by
U.S. government photographers, not by journalists. "There
is nothing macabre or ghoulish about these images," said
Begleiter. "These are among the most respectful images created
of American casualties of war - far less wrenching than images
we regularly see from the battlefield. They're taken under carefully
controlled circumstances by military photographers covering honor
An initial release of 361 such images was provided
by the Pentagon in April, 2004 in response to a Freedom of Information
Act appeal by Russ Kick, who maintains the web site thememoryhole.org.
The Pentagon later declared that release to have been a mistake
and refused to release further images, which prompted Begleiter
and the National Security Archive to challenge the policy.
The Freedom of Information Act case was filed in Federal District
Court for the District of Columbia [Case No. 1:04-cv-01697 (EGS)].
The newly released images, along with many other
details of the Freedom of Information Act case, may be seen at:
The ban on media coverage of returning casualties was imposed by
Defense Secretary Cheney after an embarrassing incident in which
three television networks broadcast live, split-screen images in
December, 1989, as the first U.S. casualties were returning from
an American assault on Panama. In that incident, President Bush
was seen on television joking at a White House news conference while
somber images of flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force
Base moved across viewers' screens. The ban on war casualty images
was continued during the Clinton administration, which made several
exceptions to allow publication and broadcast upon the return of
victims of attacks against U.S. personnel abroad, including the
bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. President George W. Bush continued
the ban following the start of the Afghanistan war in October, 2001
and the Iraq invasion in March, 2003.
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, Gen. Henry Shelton, coined the phrase "the Dover
Test" to describe the impact of images of flag-draped coffins
returning from a battlefield to the military mortuary at Dover,
potentially affecting public support for a war. Images of casualties
have played significant roles in many previous conflicts, beginning
with the Civil War in the 1860's and continuing through World
Wars I and II and the Vietnam conflict in the 1960's. In 1991,
President Bush asserted that the U.S. had "kicked the Vietnam
syndrome once and for all," but later in the 1990's, deployments
of U.S. troops in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo were influenced by
memories of the images of Vietnam-era casualties.
of DOD Policy on Images of the Honors Provided to American Casualties
Note: Documents cited below are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe
Acrobat Reader to view.
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.