The ban on media coverage of returning casualties was imposed by Defense Secretary Cheney after an embarrassing incident in which three television networks broadcast live, split-screen images in December, 1989, as the first U.S. casualties were returning from an American assault on Panama. In that incident, President Bush was seen on television joking at a White House news conference while somber images of flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base moved across viewers' screens. The ban on war casualty images was continued during the Clinton administration, which made several exceptions to allow publication and broadcast upon the return of victims of attacks against U.S. personnel abroad, including the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. President George W. Bush continued the ban following the start of the Afghanistan war in October, 2001 and the Iraq invasion in March, 2003.
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Henry Shelton, coined the phrase "the Dover Test" to describe the impact of images of flag-draped coffins returning from a battlefield to the military mortuary at Dover, potentially affecting public support for a war. Images of casualties have played significant roles in many previous conflicts, beginning with the Civil War in the 1860's and continuing through World Wars I and II and the Vietnam conflict in the 1960's. In 1991, President Bush asserted that the U.S. had "kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all," but later in the 1990's, deployments of U.S. troops in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo were influenced by memories of the images of Vietnam-era casualties.
An initial release of 361 images was provided by the Pentagon in April, 2004 in response to a Freedom of Information Act appeal by Russ Kick, who maintains the web site thememoryhole.org. The Pentagon later declared that release to have been a mistake and refused to release further images, which prompted Ralph Begleiter and the National Security Archive to challenge the policy. In its April 28, 2005 release, the Archive says: In response to Freedom of Information Act requests and a lawsuit, the Pentagon this week released hundreds of previously secret images of casualties returning to honor guard ceremonies from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and other conflicts, confirming that images of their flag-draped coffins are rightfully part of the public record, despite its earlier insistence that such images should be kept secret. More photos here from the National Security Archive. The release came one year after the start of a series of Freedom of Information Act requests filed by University of Delaware Professor Ralph Begleiter with the assistance of the National Security Archive, and six months after a lawsuit charging the Pentagon with failing to comply with the Act. The Pentagon made public more than 700 images of the return of American casualties to Dover Air Force Base and other U.S. military facilities, where the fallen troops received honor guard ceremonies. After a lawsuit forced its hand to release these photos in 2004, the Pentagon has stopped documenting the return of our dead. I'm trying to get this straight in my head. The ban was originally put in place to avoid a repeat of an embarrassing moment. After confirming that these images belong to the public, they just stop taking photos to what -- permanently ban embarrassing moments? What about marking the passing of heroes? Secretary Gates, are you there? Read more about the return of the fallen here.