By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
The New York Times
June 22, 2004
ASHINGTON, June 21 - The Bush administration's policy of barring news photographs of the flag-covered coffins of service members killed in Iraq won the backing of the Republican-controlled Senate on Monday, when lawmakers defeated a Democratic measure to instruct the Pentagon to allow pictures.
The 54-to-39 vote came after little formal debate, with 7 Democrats joining 47 Republicans to defeat the provision.
Two Republicans, Senators Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and John McCain of Arizona, voted in favor of permitting news photographers to have access to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where coffins containing the war dead from Iraq arrive.
"These caskets that arrive at Dover are not named; we just see them," said Mr. McCain, a former Navy pilot who was a prisoner of war for five years in Vietnam. He added, "I think we ought to know the casualties of war."
But President Bush has insisted that the policy banning the photography protects the privacy of the families of the dead, a view reiterated by lawmakers who opposed the measure.
Some Republicans, including Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, complained that Democrats were trying to score election-year points with the effort. Mr. Grassley noted that the policy had been in place since the first Bush administration, in 1991. "This policy has been in place for 13 years," he said. "Nobody has raised a complaint about it until now."
But the policy has not been consistently followed; President Bill Clinton took part in numerous ceremonies honoring dead servicemen. In March 2003, just as the United States embarked on its war with Iraq, the Pentagon issued a directive stating that there would be no news coverage of "deceased military personnel returning to or departing from" air bases.
The measure defeated on Monday was proposed by Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, as an amendment to a $447.2 billion Pentagon spending plan for 2005, now under consideration in the Senate. Lawmakers hope to finish work on the bill on Tuesday. Mr. Lautenberg's amendment would have instructed the Department of Defense to work out a new protocol permitting the news media to cover the arrival of the war dead in a manner that protected families' privacy.
"A majority of the Senate are now working on behalf of the president to conceal from the American people the true costs of this war," Senator Lautenberg said in a statement after the vote. He said his amendment "would bring an end to the shroud of secrecy cloaking the hard, difficult truth about war and the sacrifices of our soldiers."
The issue of pictures of the war dead has been a delicate one for the administration in recent months. In April, a collection of more than 300 images of coffins landing at Dover were made available after a Web site, www.thememoryhole.org, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for any pictures of coffins arriving at Dover from Iraq.
The images were taken by Air Force photographers and released by the Air Force Mobility Command. The Pentagon later said the release of the pictures was wrong. But Senator Gordon H. Smith, Republican of Oregon, who voted against Mr. Lautenberg's amendment on the ground that it would interfere with families' privacy, said he thought the Air Force photographs "were fine." He added, "I thought that was done very respectfully."