Bush Clamps Down on Media War Casualty Coverage

jbone at place.org jbone at place.org
Wed Oct 22 18:17:48 PDT 2003

"We control all that you see..."



Curtains Ordered for Media Coverage of Returning Coffins

By Dana Milbank

Tuesday,October 21, 2003; Page A23

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 

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 

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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