Photos released in error (War & Censorship, part II)

[ This piece covers the Pentagon’s chagrin over the Air Force’s erroneous release of photos of U.S. soldiers’ flag-draped coffins (in violation of the Administration’s policy preventing access to the Dover mortuary). Getting photos like these out has already cost U.S. workers in the Middle East their jobs. –BL ]

by Caroline Overington

April 24, 2004 | The Age [Australia]

The US Air Force released 361 photographs of the flag-draped coffins of American soldiers to an internet website yesterday, angering the Pentagon.

The photographs – which Department of Defence photographers took at an air force base that doubles as a soldiers’ mortuary in Dover, Delaware – were apparently released in error to a website called The Memory Hole.

Media organisations across the US, which are banned from taking similar photographs – quickly picked up the photographs.

Several US newspapers were planning to use the images – mostly of coffins containing the remains of soldiers killed in Iraq – on their front pages.

The pictures were released just one day after a civilian contractor, Tami Silicio, 50, was sacked from her job loading cargo for the US military in Kuwait, for taking a photograph of flag-draped coffins that she saw in the back of a plane.

The photograph was first published in the Seattle Times last Sunday, then in The Age yesterday. The Fairfax newspaper group, which publishes The Age, paid Ms Silicio for the right to use the image.
Advertisement Advertisement

The new batch of hundreds of photographs was released to Russ Kick, who operates The Memory Hole website, after he requested them under freedom-of-information legislation. Lieutenant-Colonel Jennifer Cassidy of the US Air Force said the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware first denied the request, but it was approved on appeal to the Air Force Air Mobility Command.

She said the Pentagon had since decided the release of the photographs violated its own rules and that no further copies would be made public.

The Pentagon’s ban on photographing soldiers’ coffins at US military bases dates to the first Gulf War in 1991. The US Government, concerned that the ban was often ignored, reissued it shortly before the start of the war in Iraq. It is now strictly enforced.

The Pentagon says the ban is to protect families of the dead from unnecessary trauma.

White House press spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday that President Bush believed “we should honour and show respect for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice defending our freedoms”.

However, some media outlets have criticised the ban, saying it prevents people from seeing the costs of war. NBC Nightly News executive producer Steve Capus told The New York Times that the photographs released to The Memory Hole were “not in the least gory” and that he found the Government’s arguments against their use unpersuasive.

“As a journalist, I simply disagree with their position,” he said. The Pentagon ban does not extend to photographs of soldiers’ coffins, only those arriving at military bases.

Dozens of photographs of soldiers’ coffins and funerals have been published in US newspapers this year, including on The New York Times front page. This week, there have been dozens more.

A Deputy Under-Secretary of Defence, John Molino, said yesterday the Department of Defence was not involved in the decision to sack Ms Silicio.

Seattle Times photographic editor Barry Fitzsimmons said yesterday he was happy his newspaper had published Ms Silicio’s photograph, “but it broke my heart when I found out she lost her job”.

Leave a comment