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Officials: Pentagon OKs media photos of war dead

Washington_News organizations will be allowed to photograph the homecomings of America's war dead under a new Pentagon policy, defense and congressional officials said Thursday.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has decided to allow photos of flag-draped caskets at Dover Air Force Base, Del., if the families of the fallen troops agree, the officials told The Associated Press.

Gates planned to announce his decision later Thursday, they said. The current ban was put in place in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush.

Some critics have contended the government was trying to hide the human cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"All too often, the sacrifices of our military are hidden from view," Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The sight of flag-draped coffins is, and should be, a sobering reminder to all Americans of the ultimate sacrifice our troops have made and the high price of our freedom."

But a spokeswoman for a military family group said the group was disappointed in the policy change. "This is a complete disregard for the will of America's military families and the need for their privacy during this solemn moment," said Meghan Tisinger, spokeswoman for Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission.

At least two Democratic senators have called on President Barack Obama to let news photographers attend ceremonies at the air base and other military facilities when military remains are returned to the United States. The Dover base is where casualties are brought before they are transferred on to the hometowns of their families.

Gates told reporters earlier this month that he was reviewing the policy and that if the needs of the families could be met, and the privacy concerns could be addressed, he favored honoring fallen troops as much as possible.

Gates said he initially asked for the ban to be reviewed a year ago, and was advised then that family members might feel uncomfortable with opening the ceremonies to media for privacy reasons or that the relatives might feel pressure to attend the services despite financial stresses.

Shortly after Obama took office, Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey also asked the White House to roll back the 1991 ban.

Over the years, some exceptions to the policy were made, allowing the media to photograph coffins in some cases, until the administration of President George W. Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A leading military families group has said that the policy, enforced without exception during George W. Bush's presidency, should be changed so that survivors of the dead can decide whether photographers can record their return.

As of Wednesday, at least 4,251 members of the U.S. military had died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

As of Tuesday, at least 584 members of the U.S. military had died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the Defense Department. The department last updated its figures Friday at 10 a.m. EST.

Over the years, there have been a number of challenges to the policy.

Under pressure from open-government advocates, the Pentagon in 2005 released hundreds of the military's own images of flag-draped coffins from the two ongoing wars, previous wars and from military accidents. The photographs were released in response to a Freedom of Information request and lawsuit.

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