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Pentagon Mistakenly Releases Photos of U.S. Soldiers’ Caskets

By Bill Carter

The New York Times -- The Pentagon’s ban on images of dead soldiers’ homecomings at all military bases was breached Thursday, as hundreds of photographs of flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base were released on the Internet by a Web site dedicated to combating government secrecy.

The Web site, The Memory Hole (www.memoryhole.org), had filed a Freedom of Information Act request last year, seeking any pictures of caskets arriving from Iraq at the Dover base in Delaware. The Pentagon on Thursday labeled the decision to grant the request a mistake, but news organizations quickly used a selection of the 361 images taken by Department of Defense photographers.

The release of the photos came one day after a contractor working for the Pentagon in Iraq fired a woman who had taken photos of coffins of war dead being loaded onto a transport plane in Kuwait. Her husband, a co-worker, was also fired. The contractor, Maytag Aircraft, said the woman, Tami Silicio and her husband, David Landry, had “violated Department of Defense and company policies.”

The firing underscored the stringency with which the Pentagon and the Bush administration have pursued a policy to ban news organizations from taking photographs or news footage of the homecomings of the war dead. They have argued the policy was put in place during the first war in Iraq, and that it was simply an effort to protect the sensitivities of military families.

Executives at news organizations, many of whom have protested the policy, said Thursday night they had not known that the Defense Department itself was taking photographs of the coffins arriving home, a fact that only came to light when Russ Kick, the operator of The Memory Hole filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

“We were not aware at all that these photos were being taken,” said Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times.

John Banner, the executive producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight,” said, “We did not file a FOIA request ourselves, because this was the first we had known that the military was shooting these pictures.”

The Pentagon has cited a policy instituted in 1991, during the Gulf War, as its reason for preventing news organizations from showing images of coffins arriving in the United States. While President Bush’s opponents and anti-war forces have charged that the administration is seeking to keep unwelcome images of the war’s human cost away from the American public, the Pentagon has said only individual services at a grave site give proper context to the sacrifice of soldiers and their relatives.

“The president believes that we should always honor and show respect for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice defending our freedoms,” Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said Thursday night.

A New York Times/CBS News poll taken in December found that 62 percent of Americans said the public should be allowed to see pictures of the military honor guard receiving caskets of soldiers killed in Iraq as they are returned to the United States. Twenty-seven percent said the public should not be allowed to see those ceremonies.

Kick, who operates his Web site from Tucson, Ariz., describes himself as “an information archaeologist.” He was responsible for retrieving last year a previously censored Justice Department documents criticizing the department for its diversity policies. He did not respond to phone calls at his home on Thursday night. But in his explanation on his Web site he described filing a request for “all photographs showing caskets containing the remains of U.S. military personnel at Dover AFB.”

After an initial rejection, Kick said he appealed on several grounds “and to my amazement the ruling was reversed.” The request was granted by the Air Force Air Mobility Command, and the pictures of coffins on planes and at funeral services for slain servicemen were made available.

Lt. Col. Jennifer Cassidy, an Air Force spokeswoman, said at a briefing on Thursday that the release had violated the Pentagon’s rules, and no further copies would be distributed.