Friday, August 05, 2005

Pentagon Agrees to Issue Photos of Coffins of Iraq War Dead

The New York Times

Pentagon Agrees to Issue Photos of Coffins of Iraq War Dead

WASHINGTON, Aug. 4 - Under the terms of a legal settlement announced on Thursday, the Pentagon will make available "as expeditiously as possible" some photographs of the coffins of service members killed in Iraq. The agreement runs counter to a longstanding Pentagon policy that bars the public release of such photographs. But in response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act, the Pentagon has already released hundreds of such photographs this year, and it agreed under the settlement to continue to do so.

The agreement responded to a Freedom of Information Act suit filed in October in Federal District Court here that sought all photographs and video images that showed coffins or similar items that held the remains of American military personnel at Dover Air Force Base, Del., beginning in February 2003.

The Pentagon has strictly enforced a policy barring news photographs showing the coffins. That policy has been in place since the Persian Gulf war in 1991, and President Bush has said it protects the privacy of the families of the dead.

Ralph Begleiter, a journalism professor at the University of Delaware who was a lead plaintiff in the current suit, said the Pentagon's agreement to release the photographs represented a "significant victory for the honor of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in war for their country, as well as for their families, for all service personnel and for the American people."

The settlement was announced by Mr. Begleiter, along with the National Security Archive, a research institute on foreign affairs that is affiliated with George Washington University, which provided counsel for the case. The archive has used the Freedom of Information Act in other cases to obtain information about government operations.

The Pentagon issued a statement, saying, "As with all information, including images, the Department of Defense has an obligation and a responsibility to strike a balance between our strong desire to be as transparent as possible and the legitimate concerns to protect the privacy of military families and as necessary, operational security."

But there was no indication that the government would permit news organizations to begin taking such photographs.

Under President Bill Clinton, the policy against taking such photographs was not rigorously enforced, and Mr. Clinton took part in numerous ceremonies that honored dead service members. Under Mr. Bush, the Pentagon issued a directive in March 2003 stating that there would be no news coverage of "deceased military personnel returning to or departing from" air bases.

In June 2004, that policy won the backing of the Senate, when lawmakers defeated a Democratic measure to instruct the Pentagon to allow such pictures.