www.thememoryhole.org via Getty Images
Flag-draped coffins of U.S. casualties from Iraq are offloaded from a plane by an honor guard in Dover, Del., in this undated Air Force handout photo from www.thememoryhole.org. A policy against media coverage of such ceremonies has been in place since 1991, but President Obama has said it's under review.
Flag-draped coffins of U.S. casualties from Iraq are offloaded from a plane by an honor guard in Dover, Del., in this undated Air Force handout photo from www.thememoryhole.org. A policy against media coverage of such ceremonies has been in place since 1991, but President Obama has said it's under review. www.thememoryhole.org via Getty Images
A longtime Pentagon policy bars the media from covering the arrival of coffins carrying the military's dead. But that may change under the Obama administration.
The military has argued that the ban protects the privacy of families, but critics counter that it shields Americans from the true cost of war.
The scene has played out thousands of times since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: A plane lands at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, and one by one, flag-draped coffins are carried from the cargo hold by soldiers in full dress uniform. The ceremony is somber and moving. But there is also controversy.
The policy against media coverage has been in place since the Gulf War in 1991. Opponents of the Iraq war accused President George W. Bush of keeping the cameras away from Dover for political reasons. In 2004, Joe Biden, now vice president, was the U.S. senator from Delaware. At the time, he called it shameful that soldiers' remains were being "snuck back into the country under the cover of night."
At a news conference Monday night, President Obama was asked whether he'll change the policy.
"Your question is timely," Obama said. "We got reports that four American service members have been killed in Iraq today. And, you know, obviously, our thoughts and prayers go out to the families."
He added that the weight of the presidency hits home when he signs letters to the families of fallen heroes. He added that the policy is under review and that he shouldn't comment further.
A day later, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, noted that he first considered changing the policy a year ago but was discouraged from doing so by the Bush White House. The concern, he said, was privacy — and that some families would feel compelled to be at Dover for the return of their loved ones.
"For some families, this would delay the return of the remains home. For others, it would be a financial hardship to get to Dover," Gates said.
But he also said the policy is worth reviewing to see whether the needs of families can be met.
John Ellsworth, whose son died in Iraq in 2004, heads a group called Military Families United. He said families have many different opinions on the policy. But if it is changed, he said, families will have a choice. Some would welcome cameras, wanting the world to see.
"On the other hand, some folks don't want to share that. It's too hard for them," Ellsworth said.
At the University of Delaware, professor Ralph Begleiter, a former CNN correspondent, has fought unsuccessfully in the courts for the release of government photos taken at Dover. He says it's an important element of the story of any war.
"What I'm about to say, I say with the fullest respect of the family members who have made that sacrifice by giving up their family members," Begleiter said. "I would say the people who die make that sacrifice not solely for the families but also for the nation. So it's not just a matter of privacy for the families. It's a matter of national grieving."
Neither the White House nor the Pentagon has been willing to say how long it will take to review and possibly reverse the policy banning media coverage at Dover Air Force Base.