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Defense 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 first
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

The Complete Set of Honor Guard Ceremony Images

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Download the complete set of honor guard ceremony images

April 22, 2005 release
High resolution (82 MB zip file)
Low resolution (29 MB zip file)

April 25, 2005 release
High resolution (102 MB zip file)
Low resolution (9 MB zip file)

One of the homecoming images was featured on the front page of the Washington Post on April 29, 2005.
Previous posting
October 4, 2004

Professor Sues Pentagon to Make Public Honor Guard Photos from Dover Air Force Base
University of Delaware Professor Ralph Begleiter's interview on NPR's All Things Considered, April 29, 2005
"The Political Manipulation of War Images," by Kelly Gast, University of Delaware
Selected Images
Click on image for larger version
The casket bearing the body of US Navy Machinist's Mate Third Class Nathan Taylor goes over the edge of the USS Enterprise during a Burial at Sea ceremony.
The Pentagon released two versions of this image on April 25, 2005, only one of which is redacted.
Casket being handled on military aircraft with images of honor guard members completely obscured.

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.”


Chronology 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 was commonplace:

  • 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 House.
  • 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 the media.
  • 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 Invasion:

  • 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 Gulf War:

  • 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 caskets.
  • 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 in Kuwait.
  • 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 Iraq.
  • 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 threshold."
  • 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 30, 2004.
  • 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 in full.
  • 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.
  • February 26, 2009:  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lifts blanket ban on news media coverage of honor guard ceremonies.

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