Pentagon to allow pictures of flag-draped coffins

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon will relax its ban on media coverage of returning U.S. war dead by allowing families to decide whether to allow photos and television footage of the flag-draped coffins of their loved ones, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday.

Gates ordered the change after reviewing a 1991 ban that prevents news organizations from recording images of war dead arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the Pentagon has its main mortuary.

“If the family of one of the fallen says that they do not want media coverage ... then that will be the decision. There will be no media decision. If they say that’s OK with them, then it will be available,” Gates told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.

A working group will soon determine how best to implement the change.

The ban has been imposed since the days of the first Gulf War with some exceptions including the return of Navy seamen killed during the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000.

But former President George W. Bush asserted a stricter ban during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, sparking criticism that the federal government was hiding the human cost of its military operations.

Gates, who was also Pentagon chief in the final years of the Bush administration, said he first asked about changing the policy over a year ago. But Pentagon officials advised him that the ban should be retained to protect family privacy.

President Barack Obama asked for a policy review early this month and Gates said that drew a call for change from the U.S. Army, which represents the largest portion of war dead.

“My conclusion was that we should not presume to make the decision for the families,” Gates said.

“I believe that the American people would defer to the wishes of the families of the fallen,” he added. “That’s where I would wager a lot of money.”

The Pentagon says that 4,253 U.S. service members have died as a result of the war in Iraq since March 2003 while another 584 have been killed in Afghanistan since late 2001.

Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Eric Walsh