Pentagon Defends Photo Ban

Flag-draped coffins are shown inside a cargo plane at Dover Air Force Base.
U.S. Air Force
The debate over privacy, secrecy, and the public's right to know has again flared up at the Pentagon - this time over a very sensitive subject: the photographing of soldiers' coffins as they are shipped home.

Under a policy adopted in 1991, the Pentagon bars news organizations from photographing caskets being returned to the United States, saying publication of such photos would be insensitive to bereaved families.

But many such photos are right now out in public.

One, taken April 7th by a civilian cargo worker in Kuwait, wound up on the front page of The Seattle Times.

Dozens of others, of flag-draped coffins at the military mortuary in Dover, Delaware, have been posted on the web by Russ Kick, a First Amendment activist. They are part of a batch of over 350 photos he received from the government - which takes photos at Dover and elsewhere for historical purposes, and not for publication - as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.

After Kick posted more than 350 government photographs on his Web site, thememoryhole.org, the Defense Department barred the further release of the photographs to media outlets.

"They're not happy with the release of the photos," Dover Air Force base spokesman Col. Jon Anderson said.

Both The Seattle Times photo and the Dover photos posted on the Web have sparked renewed discussion of the reasons for the Pentagon's policy and the question of whether it should be changed.

Defense officials say the purpose of the no photos policy is to protect the privacy of the soldiers' families - not to circumvent or violate the Freedom of Information Act or any other law.

"Quite frankly, we don't want the remains of our service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice to be the subject of any kind of attention that is unwarranted or undignified," said John Molino, a deputy undersecretary of defense.

"We believe we have a policy that is reflective of what the families desire," said Molino, adding that the defense department would be responsive if families indicated they thought the release of the photos was a good idea.

Asked how the military knows what the families want, Molino said "We do meet with families. We do meet with the service representatives who are responsible for the service policies."

Critics of the policy say the public is being denied information by not being able to see photos of coffins coming back from Iraq.

Demonstrators gathered at Dover last month to protest the policy.

Among their number was Jane Bright, of West Hills, Calif., whose 24-year-old son, Evan Ashcraft, was killed in combat in July.

"We need to stop hiding the deaths of our young; we need to be open about their deaths," said Bright.

Opinions vary, however, among military families.

"Sensitivity to the grief of the surviving family members should be paramount," says Kathy Moakler, deputy director of the National Military Family Association. "There is no consensus among families about whether they want events surrounding the death and burial of the service member to be made public, so how much the press is able to intrude at this particular time should be at the discretion of the family."

Moakler adds that she believes the photograph published in The Seattle Times invaded the privacy of relatives who might be wondering if a loved one was in one of the coffins.

The picture shows several workers inside a cargo plane parked at Kuwait International Airport securing 20 flag-draped coffins for the trip back to the United States.

The civilian cargo worker who took the photo, Tami Silicio, 50, and her husband, David Landry, are now out of work.

William Silva, president of Maytag Aircraft Corporation, says the two were fired for violating "Department of Defense and company policies by working together" to take and publish the photograph.

The firing was first reported Thursday in The Seattle Times, which published the April 7 photo on Sunday.

The Seattle Times says Silicio told them she hoped the picture would portray the care and devotion with which civilian and military crews treat the remains of fallen soldiers.

"It wasn't my intent to lose my job or become famous or anything," said Silicio, who gave permission to the newspaper to print it without compensation.

The Times ran it Sunday with a feature story about Silicio's work titled "The somber task of honoring the fallen."

"Our first reaction was this was an incredibly powerful and important photograph, and our desire was to share it with our readers," said Times Managing Editor David Boardman.

Boardman said Times editors discussed how to present the photo tastefully.

"This was not published with any sort of antiwar agenda," Boardman said. "It was published with the purpose of presenting an important context of the war."

The photo has since been posted on Web sites and has been widely discussed on the Internet. Boardman said the newspaper has received an overwhelming number of responses from readers. The vast majority of them have been positive, he said, even the comments from military families.