Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced this afternoon that the Pentagon has decided to lift the complete ban on video and photos of the return of the war dead to US soil.
Now, it will be up to the families of the service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan whether to allow such media coverage.
Gates said the decision "should be made by those most directly affected, on an individual basis, by the families of the fallen. We ought not presume to make that decision in their place."
At his daily briefing, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "The president asked that the secretary of defense review our policy toward media and photos at Dover air base for victims returning of -- from Iraq and Afghanistan. And what the...president supports is a policy consistent with that that we have at Arlington cemetery, which allows at the families position for that to be open, which allows them to make that decision and protect their privacy if that's what they wish to do."
President Obama said earlier this month he was reconsidering the policy, which was put in place during the 1991 Persian Gulf war and covers the solemn transfer of flag-draped caskets at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the first US stop on the journey to the final resting place for the military personnel.
Press groups pushed for the change, but the American Legion and other military groups opposed lifting the ban.
The Associated Press says that the emerging policy mirrors one for military services at Arlington National Cemetery, where families largely decide whether they want media coverage.
A poll this month suggested that two-thirds of Americans generally support the policy change.
The CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey conducted last week asked, "When the remains of U.S. troops who were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan are flown back to the U.S., brief ceremonies are held when the caskets are taken off the plane at an air force base. Do you think the government should or should not allow the public to see pictures of those events on TV, in newspapers, and on websites?"
Sixty-seven percent said the government should allow such coverage, while 31 percent said it should not.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which bills itself as the country's first and largest nonpartisan organization for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, applauded the policy shift as a way to show Americans the true cost of the wars.
“Less than 1% of the American population has served in Iraq or Afghanistan. There has never been a greater disconnect between those who serve in harms warm and those back home. All too often, the sacrifices of our military are hidden from view. The sight of flag-draped coffins is, and should be, a sobering reminder to all Americans of the ultimate sacrifice our troops have made and the high price of our freedom,” said IAVA Executive Director Paul Rieckhoff.
Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts also issued a statement of support.
“Secretary Gates has made a courageous, respectful decision that first and foremost is accountable to all the families of our fallen heroes,” Kerry said. “I’ve heard from many families of our fallen soldiers who wanted the entire nation to share in the mourning when we bring our heroes home to Dover Air Force Base. This is one way our grateful nation keeps faith with those in uniform, and the new policy is appropriately sensitive to the families who prefer to close an arrival to the media.”
Word of the policy shift comes a day before Obama goes to Camp Lejeune, the sprawling Marine base in eastern North Carolina, to announce the "way forward" in Iraq.
He is widely expected to confirm plans for a withdrawal by August 2010, though as many as 52,000 of the 142,000 troops now in Iraq could remain and some could retain combat roles.
Obama has already announced he is sending 17,000 more troops this spring to Afghanistan.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.