The Pentagon Thursday announced that it was reversing its policy banning coverage of war dead returning to Dover Air Force Base.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that those calls would now be made individually by the families of the fallen service men, saying he had favored changing the policy a year ago.
"As you know, the president asked me to review this policy," Gates said in a briefing. "After receiving input from a number of sources, including all of the military services and organizations representing military families, I have decided that the decision regarding media coverage of the dignified transfer process at Dover should be made by those most directly affected: on an individual basis by the families of the fallen. We ought not presume to make that decision in their place."
Gates said that helping in the reversal of the decision was a report back from the families. "I would say that the reaction we got from the organizations associated with the families strongly reinforced the decision of where I was heading," he said.
Gates said he had been heading in that direction for a while and had asked about changing the policy a year ago, when the recommendation came back not to change the policy. "I accepted that at the time," he said, but added: "I must say, I was never comfortable with it....I was much happier with the answer I got this year."
The Pentagon had been presuming to make that decision under a long-standing policy over the past several administrations dating back to 1991 under the first President Bush and extending through the Clinton and second Bush administrations.
The ban's backers argued it helped preserve the privacy of the families, but opponents, including broadcast and cable news operations, countered that it was a way to shield the nation from the true cost of war.
During the new president's first press conference earlier this month, CNN's Ed Henry of CNN asked whether he would overturn the policy. The president said it was a timely question given the news that four service members had been killed in Iraq. He said having to contact the families of casualties was when he first felt the true weight of the presidency. He said he was in the process of reviewing the policy.
Gates said Thursday he has set up a working group to implement the plan.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said she was pleased by the reversal, but said that the devil was in the details of how it is implemented.
"It shows that this administration is paying attention to issues of transparency, and showing a little more respect for information that the public is entitled to. What I don't know is how it works in practice."
She said there is some chatter out in the blogosphere that it is a right in name only because all the families have veto power.
"If it is true that any one member of any family can show up and just say no cameras ever, then that's not really openness. But it is certainly reasonable that a family ask that they not be shown."
She says the result may wind up being an Arlington Cemetary-type policy where photographers take photos and video from a distance.