Lawsuit Seeks Casket Photos

A journalism professor sued the government Monday to force the Defense Department to release pictures of flag-draped coffins of soldiers arriving in the United States from wars overseas.

Ralph Begleiter, a professor at the University of Delaware and a former world affairs correspondent for CNN, filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act for the release of government photos and video of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, calling them "an important part of the record of war – the history of war.

"I think the American people ought to be able to use those photographs as part of the many ways they assess the costs of war," Begleiter told CBS News Correspondent Melissa McDermott.

The Pentagon has refused to release those photos, saying it has begun enforcing a policy installed in 1991 intended to respect the privacy of the families of the dead soldiers.

Critics counter the government is trying to hide the human cost of the war from the public.

Begleiter said he's not trying to invade the privacy of families who lost loved ones in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The coffins carry no identifiable markings, and the photos are taken by military personnel or their contractors, not the media.

"It's the Pentagon that releases the names and home towns of all the soldiers, all of the troops who are killed abroad," Begleiter said. "They release photographs often of those soldiers when hey return to the United States. If there's any invasion of privacy, and I'm certainly not accusing anyone of an invasion of privacy, it would be that kind of detail that would do so."

Begleiter's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, lists the Defense Department and the Air Force as defendants. A Pentagon spokeswoman declined comment on the lawsuit.

Last April, the Air Force released scores of photos taken at Dover in response to a FOIA request. The pictures include shots of the some of the coffins of the astronauts who died last year on the space shuttle Columbia. The Pentagon later called that release a mistake.

Begleiter filed a FOIA request and the Pentagon has acknowledged receiving it but has not responded further, Mach said. The lack of response enables Begleiter to sue, he said.