Dover Opening?

This afternoon, just after Liz reminded us of the Obama-spurred review of the Pentagon’s rules barring media access to the repatriations of deceased soldiers at Dover Air Force Base, Secretary Gates announced at a press conference that the policy, in place since the George H. W. Bush administration, will be revoked.

What exactly will replace it?

“We don’t have all the precise details,” spokesperson Lt. Col Les Melnyk told CJR in a brief interview.

Secretary Gates has asked a working group to come up with a new regulation that would open the returning ceremonies, flag draped coffins and all, to the press, pending approval of the deceased’s family.

Those approvals will not be a simple matter. It remains to be seen how the military will define “family approval.” What if the service member’s parents disagree with the spouse, or, for that matter, with each other? When and how will approval be sought? What if there are multiple casualties on the same flight? Will the objections of a single family (or a single family member) with a loved one aboard shield the entire plane from public view?

“You’ve invited a lot of the issues that they are going to have to deal with,” said Melnyk, who raised the prospect of further complications by adding that Dover handles many people besides American combat deaths, including natural deaths, military dependents or retirees who die abroad, and even the occasional foreign national.

According to Melnyk, the working group has been given a relatively short time period to make its decisions. Their determinations will shape how Americans acknowledge these deaths, and how often we see this striking sign of our wars’ toll.

UPDATE 6:15pm: In a short statement, the Associated Press’s chief of photography, Santiago Lyon, praises the shift, but signals his concern over the multiple-family approval question:

We understand that the ability to photograph these homecomings is dependent on the approval of the families of the victims and we will have to work out the practical details on the ground as time goes on, especially should multiple caskets arrive at once.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.