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Friday, April 23, 2004 - Page updated at 08:17 A.M.
Air Force adds to controversy with its own coffin photos
The week before Kuwait cargo worker Tami Silicio lost her job for releasing a photograph of soldiers' coffins, the Air Force made its own release of several hundred photographs of flag-draped coffins to the operator of an Internet site.
The Air Force photos were shot by personnel at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and released reluctantly in response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by a 34-year-old First Amendment activist.
Release of the more than 360 photographs further erodes a 13-year-old ban on the media taking photos of the transport of coffins from overseas battle zones to Dover, site of the military's largest mortuary.
Pentagon officials said yesterday the intent of the ban is to prevent photos of coffins returning home from war from being published without the consent of grieving families. Pentagon officials say the policy is consistent with the wishes of the families and the Pentagon has no intention of changing it.
But news of the Air Force photos' release created new confusion amid intense media coverage generated by Silicio's photo, first published in Sunday's editions of The Seattle Times.
Initially, no mainstream media organization carried the Dover photographs or reported on their release by the Air Force. The Times was unaware of their release when it published the Sunday picture, which accompanied a story on Silicio's work in Kuwait.
The often-emotional public discourse that ensued has played out in newspapers and on TV, radio and the Web. And it comes at a difficult time for the nation as the April casualty count in Iraq climbs to more than 100 soldiers.
Yesterday, The Times reported that Silicio had been fired from her job as a result of her actions.
Her husband, David Landry, who was a co-worker, also was fired by Maytag Aircraft, a contractor operating out of Kuwait International Airport. Maytag President William Silva said the couple had violated company and Defense Department policies, and that the military had identified "very specific concerns."
Silicio has not accepted any money for publication of the photo in The Times. The image is now being handled by an agent, Zuma Press, to help deal with a crush of media requests. Silicio has considered setting up a fund with the proceeds of the photo's sale, to help military families.
Because of the media interest in her story and the release of photographs by the Air Force, Pentagon officials yesterday called a news conference to discuss its media policy. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense John Molino said the Pentagon did not demand that Silicio be fired. Maytag made that decision, he said.
Molino confirmed that the Air Force had released the Dover photos to Russ Kick, who runs the Web site www.thememoryhole.org.
"I was not involved in the decision," Molino said. "The attorneys are looking into the case to see if that was ... an appropriate action."
Though upheld in a 1996 U.S. Court of Appeals decision, the Pentagon policy on photographing coffins has been a source of concern for First Amendment activists and media. Some critics, including some members of Congress, have said it is an attempt by the administration to downplay the true cost of the war in human lives.
Molino bristled at those criticisms yesterday.
"It's a policy the families say they like," Molino said. "And it's also a policy that has spanned more than one administration, more than one political party."
Once a casket has arrived at a final destination, the media are able to cover funerals with the consent of families, according to Molino.
Air Force officials yesterday acknowledged they cannot control what Kick now does with the images. But they say they have put a hold on further release of the Dover photos until word from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
"They're not happy with the release of the photos," Col. Jon Anderson, chief of public affairs at Dover Air Force Base, told the Associated Press. OSD (The Office of the Secretary of Defense) says that the release is not consistent with their policy."
In coming days, there could be more coffin images circulating as Kick's Web site offers "high-resolution" Dover photos.
Some of the Dover pictures, already posted online, depict rows of flag-draped coffins of American soldiers killed in Iraq being unloaded from Air Force cargo planes. Some show soldiers kneeling to adjust flags on coffins.
In an interview, Kick said he believes the public has a right to see the pictures, and that they are respectful to grieving families.
"I would make the argument that trying to hide the photos of these people who gave everything for their country is actually dishonoring them," Kick said. "They went over there in all of our names and died, and then when they come back home, they're hidden behind a curtain. I think that's wrong."
Kick, of Tucson, Ariz., initially filed his Freedom of Information Act request in March 2003. The Air Force denied that request. But after he filed an appeal, "to my amazement" the ruling was reversed, he wrote on his Internet site.
And on April 14, he received a CD with the 361 images.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com.
Ray Rivera: 206-423-4700 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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