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FOIA Impact: Why Pictures of Dover Transfer Ceremonies Matter

October 30, 2009

This past week President Obama left the White House in the middle of the night and traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to participate in the honor transfer ceremony for 18 US personnel slain in Afghanistan.  President Obama described the ceremony as a “sobering reminder” of the sacrifices that men and women in uniform make for our country.

In 2004, the National Security Archive worked with University of Delaware Professor Ralph Begleiter to submit FOIA requests for pictures these transfer ceremonies at Dover.  We had to file a lawsuit to enforce the FOIA and as a result hundreds of pictures were eventually released in 2005.  But then, the government stopped taking pictures.  We know this because we filed some subsequent FOIA requests and were told no documents were available.

Under the Obama Administration, the entire practice has changed.  Now, if families are interested in media coverage of the honor ceremony, then news media are permitted to record and report on the event.  The Washington Post reported last week that 60 percent of families chose this option, but commented that media do not show up for most of the ceremonies.  The military itself also documents the ceremonies and posts a picture online of every ceremony approved by the family for media coverage.  An additional 15 percent of families reportedly choose this option.  Thus, instead of hiding the fact of these ceremonies, DOD now facilitates coverage and again documents the ceremonies.

I went to court for this issue so I feel strongly that these pictures, and their publication, matters.  The history of the ban on media coverage and pictures of transfer ceremonies goes back to 1991, when then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney barred coverage of the ceremonies.  The clear rationale of the policy was to control public opinion about the Gulf War.  That policy remained in place under the Clinton and Bush 43 Administrations, although there were several notable occasions when transfer ceremonies were covered.  In many ways, the case of media coverage at transfer ceremonies raise issues that are not raised by a FOIA request for pictures taken by government personnel.  In the FOIA request case, we did not believe that the release of these anonymous pictures would intrude on anyone’s privacy.  We simply thought release of the pictures was important so people would understand the cost of war and the sacrifice of the personnel who were brought home.  Anyone who has seen the HBO movie Taking Chance will immediately know what I am talking about.  If you have not seen this film, you surely have seen, and probably have studied, the pictures that newspapers occasionally publish along with lists of fallen members of the military.  Seeing the pictures of flag draped caskets and the honor and respect accorded to the fallen soldiers as they make their way home to their final resting places is a tremendously moving experience and drives home the significance of the sacrifices made by those individuals and their families.  Even if there is not media coverage every time a ceremony takes place, the sacrifice will be documented and there will be coverage from time to time.  We will not forget, and that is why the pictures matter.

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