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The Associated Press

Gates Orders Review of Ban on Photos of Coffins

Lara Jakes

An undated picture showing U.S. military personnel offloading coffins of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq at Dover Air Base in Delaware. The government is reviewing its ban on media coverage of the flag-draped coffins of fallen soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama said Monday, Feb. 9, 2009. (HO / AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered a review Tuesday of a Pentagon policy banning media from taking pictures of flag-draped coffins of military dead, signaling he was open to overturning the policy to better honor fallen soldiers.

At least two Democratic senators have called on President Barack Obama to let news photographers attend ceremonies at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and other military facilities when military remains are returned to the United States. Obama told reporters Monday he was reviewing the ban.

"If the needs of the families can be met, and the privacy concerns can be addressed, the more honor we can accord these fallen heroes, the better," Gates told reporters at a Pentagon news conference Tuesday. "So I'm pretty open to whatever the results of this review may be."

Gates said he initially asked for the ban to be reviewed a year ago, and was advised then that family members might feel uncomfortable with opening the ceremonies to media for privacy reasons or pressure to attend them despite financial costs.

"I think that looking at it again makes all kinds of sense," Gates said. "And we will do so, and I've put a fairly short deadline on that effort."

Shortly after Obama took office, Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey also asked the White House to roll back the ban that was put in place in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush.

However, some exceptions to the policy were made, allowing the media to photograph coffins in some cases, until the administration of President George W. Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a Feb. 9 letter to Obama, Lautenberg said the Pentagon should develop a new policy to allow "respectful" media coverage while protecting the privacy of the victims and their families. Generally, the remains in the caskets are not publicly identified.

"I respectfully urge you to work to bring an end to the misguided policies of the past that seek to hide the sacrifice of our soldiers and the public recognition and pride that should accompany it," Lautenberg wrote.

He said the George W. Bush administration "effectively censored images of flag-draped caskets from appearing in media coverage."

A leading military families group says the policy, enforced without exception during the administration of President George W. Bush, should let survivors of the dead decide whether photographers can record their return.

John Ellsworth, president of Military Families United who lost a son in Iraq in 2004, said the survivors should be able to decide whether the coffins should be photographed.

"We don't necessarily think it should be banned. I think they could modify it to give a little latitude to the families," Ellsworth said several weeks ago. "Some people want to celebrate the lives of their fallen, and share their fallen hero with the American people, while others want to hold them a little closer to the vest and keep it private. We should respect that.

"It shouldn't be up to the government to hide these images to the public," he said. "But at the same time, I don't know that we can allow the press to overstep the bounds of good taste in some of these instances."

A University of Delaware professor who unsuccessfully sued to force the government to release pictures of flag-draped coffins returning home said taxpayers should see the cost of war.

"Of course we respect the families, but none of these caskets is identified in any way and there's no invasion of privacy in the first place," said Ralph Begleiter, a professor at the University of Delaware and a former world affairs correspondent for CNN.

The fallen troops "died for all of us - they died for the nation, they died for the cause," Begleiter said in a January interview. "It's a right for all Americans to pay their respects for those who made the sacrifice. It is not a right held exclusively for the families themselves."

Jakes reported from Ottawa, Canada.

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