President Barack Obama said Monday he is considering whether to overturn a Pentagon policy that bans the media from taking pictures of the flag-draped coffins of U.S. troops returning from the battlefield.
A leading military families group says the policy, enforced without exception during the administration of former President George W. Bush, should let survivors of the dead decide whether photographers can record their return.
At his first prime-time news conference as president, Obama said his administration is reviewing the policy with Defense Department officials. He noted that he was informed Monday that four U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq, making the question timely.
"Obviously, our thoughts and prayers go out to the families," Obama said.
"You know, people have asked me, 'When did it hit you that you are now president?'" he said. "And what I told them was the most sobering moment is signing letters to the families of our fallen heroes. It reminds you of the responsibilities that you carry in this office and the consequences of the decisions that you make."
However, Obama said no decision has yet been made.
"I don't want to give you an answer now before I've evaluated that review and understand all the implications involved," he said.
The Pentagon ban on allowing news photographers into Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and other military facilities where military remains are returned to the United States has been in place since the administration of former President George H.W. Bush. However, some exceptions to the policy were made, allowing the media to photograph coffins in some limited cases, until the administration of President George W. Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last month, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Les' Melnyk said the ban would remain in place until the White House ordered otherwise.
"We don't want families to feel pressure that they have to be at Dover because the media is covering it," Melnyk said in a January interview. "That's just adding stress on families."
John Ellsworth, president of Military Families United who lost a son in Iraq in 2004, said the survivors should be able to decide whether the coffins should be photographed.
"We don't necessarily think it should be banned. I think they could modify it to give a little latitude to the families," Ellsworth said several weeks ago. "Some people want to celebrate the lives of their fallen, and share their fallen hero with the American people, while others want to hold them a little closer to the vest and keep it private. We should respect that.
"It shouldn't be up to the government to hide these images to the public," he said. "But at the same time, I don't know that we can allow the press to overstep the bounds of good taste in some of these instances."
A University of Delaware professor who unsuccessfully sued to force the government to release pictures of flag-draped coffins returning home said taxpayers should see the cost of war.
"Of course we respect the families, but none of these caskets is identified in any way and there's no invasion of privacy in the first place," said Ralph Begleiter, a professor at the University of Delaware and a former world affairs correspondent for CNN.
The fallen troops "died for all of us — they died for the nation, they died for the cause," Begleiter said in a January interview. "It's a right for all Americans to pay their respects for those who made the sacrifice. It is not a right held exclusively for the families themselves."
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