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Coffins Off-Limits for TV News

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  • ummyakoub
    Curtains Ordered for Media Coverage of Returning Coffins By Dana Milbank washingtonpost.com Tuesday, October 21, 2003 Since the end of the Vietnam War,
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 4, 2003
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      Curtains Ordered for Media Coverage of Returning Coffins

      By Dana Milbank
      washingtonpost.com
      Tuesday, October 21, 2003


      Since the end of the Vietnam War, presidents have worried that their
      military actions would lose support once the public glimpsed the
      remains of U.S. soldiers arriving at air bases in flag-draped caskets.

      To this problem, the Bush administration has found a simple solution:
      It has ended the public dissemination of such images by banning news
      coverage and photography of dead soldiers' homecomings on all
      military bases.

      In March, on the eve of the Iraq war, a directive arrived from the
      Pentagon at U.S. military bases. "There will be no arrival ceremonies
      for, or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to
      or departing from Ramstein [Germany] airbase or Dover [Del.] base, to
      include interim stops," the Defense Department said, referring to the
      major ports for the returning remains.

      A Pentagon spokeswoman said the military-wide policy actually dates
      from about November 2000 -- the last days of the Clinton
      administration -- but it apparently went unheeded and unenforced, as
      images of caskets returning from the Afghanistan war appeared on
      television broadcasts and in newspapers until early this year. Though
      Dover Air Force Base, which has the military's largest mortuary, has
      had restrictions for 12 years, others "may not have been familiar
      with the policy," the spokeswoman said. This year, "we've really
      tried to enforce it."

      President Bush's opponents say he is trying to keep the spotlight off
      the fatalities in Iraq. "This administration manipulates information
      and takes great care to manage events, and sometimes that goes too
      far," said Joe Lockhart, who as White House press secretary joined
      President Bill Clinton at several ceremonies for returning
      remains. "For them to sit there and make a political decision because
      this hurts them politically -- I'm outraged."

      Pentagon officials deny that. Speaking on condition of anonymity,
      they said the policy covering the entire military followed a victory
      over a civil liberties court challenge to the restrictions at Dover
      and relieves all bases of the difficult logistics of assembling
      family members and deciding which troops should get which types of
      ceremonies.

      One official said only individual graveside services, open to cameras
      at the discretion of relatives, give "the full context" of a
      soldier's sacrifice. "To do it at several stops along the way doesn't
      tell the full story and isn't representative," the official said.

      A White House spokesman said Bush has not attended any memorials or
      funerals for soldiers killed in action during his presidency as his
      predecessors had done, although he has met with families of fallen
      soldiers and has marked the loss of soldiers in Memorial Day and
      Sept. 11, 2001, remembrances.

      The Pentagon has previously acknowledged the effect on public opinion
      of the grim tableau of caskets being carried from transport planes to
      hangars or hearses. In 1999, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
      Staff, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, said a decision to use military
      force is based in part on whether it will pass "the Dover test," as
      the public reacts to fatalities.

      Ceremonies for arriving coffins, not routine during the Vietnam War,
      became increasingly common and elaborate later. After U.S. soldiers
      fell in Beirut, Grenada, Panama, the Balkans, Kenya, Afghanistan and
      elsewhere, the military often invited in cameras for elaborate
      ceremonies for the returning remains, at Andrews Air Force Base,
      Dover, Ramstein and elsewhere -- sometimes with the president
      attending.

      President Jimmy Carter attended ceremonies for troops killed in
      Pakistan, Egypt and the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran.
      President Ronald Reagan participated in many memorable ceremonies,
      including a service at Camp Lejeune in 1983 for 241 Marines killed in
      Beirut. Among several events at military bases, he went to Andrews in
      1985 to pin Purple Hearts to the caskets of marines killed in San
      Salvador, and, at Mayport Naval Station in Florida in 1987, he
      eulogized those killed aboard the USS Stark in the Persian Gulf.

      During President George H.W. Bush's term, there were ceremonies at
      Dover and Andrews for Americans killed in Panama, Lebanon and aboard
      the USS Iowa.

      But in early 1991, at the time of the Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon
      said there would be no more media coverage of coffins returning to
      Dover, the main arrival point; a year earlier, Bush was angered when
      television networks showed him giving a news briefing on a split
      screen with caskets arriving.

      But the photos of coffins arriving at Andrews and elsewhere continued
      to appear through the Clinton administration. In 1996, Dover made an
      exception to allow filming of Clinton's visit to welcome the 33
      caskets with remains from Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown's plane
      crash. In 1998, Clinton went to Andrews to see the coffins of
      Americans killed in the terrorist bombing in Nairobi. Dover also
      allowed public distribution of photos of the homecoming caskets after
      the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000.

      The photos of coffins continued for the first two years of the
      current Bush administration, from Ramstein and other bases. Then, on
      the eve of the Iraq invasion, word came from the Pentagon that other
      bases were to adopt Dover's policy of making the arrival ceremonies
      off limits.

      "Whenever we go into a conflict, there's a certain amount of guidance
      that comes down the pike," said Lt. Olivia Nelson, a spokeswoman for
      Dover. "It's a consistent policy across the board. Where it used to
      apply only to Dover, they've now made it very clear it applies to
      everyone."

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