WASHINGTON – A White House photographer was allowed to take and widely distribute a photo from the ceremony Tuesday for the return of the remains of 30 American troops killed in a weekend helicopter crash in Afghanistan despite the Pentagon's claim that any public depiction of the scene would violate the wishes of bereaved families.
News media coverage of the ceremony had been banned by the Pentagon over the objections of several news organizations.
Pentagon officials had said that because 19 of 30 of the American families of the dead had objected to media coverage of the remains coming off a plane at Dover Air Force Base, no images could be taken. In addition, the Pentagon rejected media requests to take photos that showed officials at the ceremony but did not depict caskets.
President Barack Obama attended the ceremony, called a "dignified transfer," for those killed in the worst single loss of the nearly 10-year war. An official White House photo of a saluting Obama was distributed to news media and published widely. It also was posted on the White House website as the "Photo of the Day." It showed Obama and other officials in silhouette and did not depict caskets.
Doug Wilson, head of public affairs at the Pentagon, said the department did not know the White House photographer was present and had no idea a photo of the event was being released until it became public. He said the photographers who routinely travel with the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not allowed to go to the event, and no official Pentagon photos were taken or released.
The Associated Press did not transmit the White House photo to its customers, in accordance with its policy of refusing government handout images of events it believes the media should have access to.
When asked about the photo Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the picture was carefully taken so that it did not show the cases containing remains.
"The White House routinely releases photos taken by the White House photographers in specific circumstances where it would be inappropriate to include members of the media," Carney said. "In this case, the White House released the photo, in the interests of transparency, so that the American people could have as much insight as possible into this historic and sobering event."
Under a Pentagon policy set in 2009, media coverage at the Dover base is allowed only when family members of the war dead approve. In the case of multiple sets of remains returning as a group, photographers take pictures of those approved caskets only and are ushered away before the remains of any troops whose families declined coverage are brought out of the plane.
The Pentagon said that in this case no family could give permission because any given case could contain the remains of troops whose families did not want coverage. The Pentagon said that during initial notification of next of kin, 19 of the 30 families said they did not want media coverage.
The AP and other media organizations argued that images could be taken of the tarmac, plane or dignitaries that would depict the occasion without showing a casket.
The base in Delaware serves as the entry point for all remains of U.S. troops killed overseas.
The Pentagon has said it expects to identify all 38 people who died, 30 U.S. troops and eight Afghans, and will return their remains to families for burial. The Pentagon planned to release the names of all Americans who died on Thursday, after an internal debate over whether doing so might endanger families of the SEAL Team 6 troops. Other members of that same elite special operations team killed Osama bin Laden in May.
Under the Pentagon policy spelled out in March 2009, the option to allow media access is explained to family members when they are notified of their loved one's death, and "primary next of kin will make the family decision regarding media access to dignified transfers at Dover."
The AP has covered every ceremony in which a family has agreed to coverage since the Pentagon lifted a total ban on media coverage at Dover in 2009, a total of 68 ceremonies this year at Dover through June 30.