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Redacting Reality

After years of pushing for expanded secrecy, last week the Pentagon was forced to release hundreds of photographs of fallen American soldiers in flag-draped coffins. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by University of Delaware Professor and former CNN reporter Ralph Begleiter in October 2004, the Pentagon made public more than 700 images of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, taken by military photographers between 2001 and 2004.

In a maddening twist, however, the DoD heavily censored the images by blacking out ("redacting") the faces, uniform insignia and name tags of the soldiers carrying the coffins in color-guard ceremonies. They say it's only a matter of privacy protection. Yet the Pentagon provides photos of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan every day. Can you imagine the DoD asking combat troops in Ramadi for privacy waivers?

More likely than not, says Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, which assisted the FOIA request, the Pentagon redacted the faces to prevent the photos from spreading in the press. "It's a knee-jerk bureaucratic response to exercise the black box because they can," Blaton says. "There's not a single soldier who'd want a black blotch over their face...The people that I know in the military describe color-guard duty as absolutely wrenching, but of the highest importance."
It was Defense Secretary Dick Cheney who banned media coverage of military casualties in December 1989, a day after the U.S. invasion of Panama. Three television networks ran live coverage of the first flag-draped coffins returning to Dover Air Force Base, juxtaposed in split-screen with footage of George Bush I laughing with reporters at a White House press briefing -- a devastating image for Poppy. The prohibition continued into the first Gulf War, as an Administration eager to kick off the Vietnam Syndrome desperately wanted to keep U.S. casualties off the evening news. President Clinton permitted exceptions for Americans killed in bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and aboard the U.S.S Cole.

The DoD restated the ban on media coverage at military bases shortly after the start of the war in Afghanistan and expanded the policy before the Iraq War to include all fallen soldiers' caskets. Only in March 2004, after Russ Kirk of filed a FOIA request, did the Pentagon release some 300 photos of the fallen. As the powerful images swept across the internet, the DoD immediately reversed course and refused to release further photos, prompting the FOIA from Begleiter.

"These are among the most respectful images created of American casualties of war," Begleiter says. "Hiding these images from the public deprives all Americans of the opportunity to recognize their contribution to our democracy, and hinders policy-makers and historians in the future from making informed judgments about public opinion and war."

The Bush Administration's record belies its pro-troops rhetoric. Bush won't attend military funerals. Rumsfeld signed condolence letters to military families with an autopen. Thirty-nine Republican Senators recently voted against producing properly armored Humvees. It's becoming increasingly clear that the "support our troops" faction couldn't care less.
Reprinted with permission from The Nation

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