By Ann Scott Tyson / Washington Post / February 26, 2009
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced today that he is lifting a 1991 ban on news coverage of the return of the remains of fallen service members to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, although he will leave the decision about press coverage up to the family of the dead.
The controversial ban on photography and other media coverage of the solemn return of flag-draped coffins — upheld by both Republican and Democratic administrations — has generated lawsuits as well as conflicting emotions on the part of military familiies.
Gates said he is asking a group of advisers to come up with a plan on how to implement the new policy.
President George H.W. Bush’s administration imposed the ban on media coverage of the arrival of fallen troops’ remains at Dover Air Force Base during the Gulf War in February 1991. It came about after a controversy arose when Bush held a news conference at the same moment the first U.S. casualties were returning to Dover the day after the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, and three television networks carried the events live on split screen, with Bush appearing at one point to joke while on the opposite screen the solemn ceremony unfolded at the Delaware base.
Pictures of casualties have long played into the politics of a war — most notably in Vietnam, dubbed the “living-room war” for its extensive television coverage, including footage of coffins rolling off planes at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii as if off a conveyor belt. Indeed, starting in the 1990s, politicians and generals used the term “the Dover test” to describe the public’s tolerance for troop casualties.
Both Republican and Democratic administrations have upheld the Dover ban, but both have also made notable exceptions, which some observers view as politically expedient. For example, under President Bill Clinton in October 2000, the Pentagon distributed photographs of coffins arriving at Dover bearing the remains of military personnel killed in the bombing of the USS Cole.
Exceptions were also made under President George W. Bush, such as in September 2001 when the Air Force published a photo of the transfer at Dover of the remains of a victim of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
Soon after the war in Afghanistan started in October 2001, however, the Pentagon restated the ban on coverage at Dover, and in March 2003, the same month that the U.S. military invaded Iraq, it expanded the policy prohibiting media coverage of the coffins of fallen troops to other ports of arrival as well.