WASHINGTON – The Senate refused on Monday to change a Pentagon policy banning media coverage of America's war dead as their remains arrive in flag-draped caskets (search).
The New Jersey Democrat said the Pentagon directive that requires strict censorship, "issued just as the Iraq war began ... prevents the American people from seeing the truth about what's happening."
The 54-39 Senate negative vote came as the American death toll in Iraq reached 837 Monday.
The vote defeated an amendment to the authorization bill for the Defense Department that would have required the Pentagon (search) to produce a protocol in 60 days to regulate media coverage of the returning dead.
Banning press and public access to the arrival of casualties in Dover was started in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, during the term of President Bush's father. The policy continued through President Clinton's eight years in office, although it was not strictly enforced and there was no conflict on the scale of the either the Gulf War or the war in Iraq during Clinton's tenure.
"During the Afghan war during this administration, flag-draped coffins were filmed (at Dover), and during the Kosovo conflict President Clinton was on the tarmac to receive the dead," Lautenberg said.
Citing privacy questions on the eve of the war with Iraq a year ago, the Pentagon reiterated the ban and began enforcing it at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Photos often had been allowed at Ramstein before the current Bush administration.
Sen. John Warner, Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued the ban should continue to "to preserve the most important priority, and that's the privacy of the families ... and not open up this matter to greater scrutiny by the press."
The debate over whether Americans should see coffins of the war dead flared in April after The Seattle Times published a front-page photograph of coffins in a cargo plane in Kuwait and a First Amendment activist posted on his Web site dozens of like images from Dover, home to the nation's largest military mortuary.
A poll at that time found more than six in 10 Americans thought the homecomings should be covered.