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Context of 'February 26, 2009: White House Reverses Bush Policy, Allows Photos of Flag-Draped Coffins at Dover Air Force Base'

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Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln.Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln. [Source: Associated Press]President Bush, wearing a custom-made flight suit, is ferried in a Navy S-3B Viking jet to the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln anchored off the coast of San Diego, where he declares the cessation of major combat operations in Iraq. A banner unfurled behind the president reads, “Mission Accomplished.” [CNN, 5/2/2003] Bush begins his speech by saying: “Officers and sailors of the USS Abraham Lincoln, my fellow Americans, major combat operations have ended. In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” [White House, 5/1/2003; Unger, 2007, pp. 304-305] Bush praises a military victory “carried out with a combination of precision and speed and boldness the enemy did not expect and the world had not seen before.” He celebrates “the images of fallen soldiers” and “the images of celebrating Iraqis” (see April 9, 2003, April 9, 2003, and April 10, 2003), and continues, “[T]he battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the eleventh, 2001, and still goes on.” The invasion “removed an ally of al-Qaeda,” he asserts. Because of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Bush says, “no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the regime is no more.” Bush gives his listeners a dose of belligerence: “With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States, and war is what they got.” [White House, 5/1/2003; Rich, 2006, pp. 90]
Perfectly Staged - The presentation itself is a triumph of stage-managed spectacle. The Lincoln, only 39 miles offshore, is held out at sea for an additional 24 hours, forcing the crew to wait another day to see their families after their lengthy sea tour. The carrier shifts position several times to ensure that the television cameras only film expanses of ocean as backdrop for Bush, and not the Southern California skyline. Bush’s handlers decide not to have the president fly in by helicopter—standard procedure for such a visit—but instead opt for a far more dramatic flight in a fighter jet making a high-speed tailhook landing. The jet is renamed “Navy One” and Bush is designated co-pilot. [Unger, 2007, pp. 304-305] The Secret Service balks at allowing Bush to fly in “one of the sexier fighter jets,” but eventually relents enough to allow Bush to “pilot” a four-seat S-3B Viking (specially dubbed “Navy One” and with the legend “George W. Bush, Commander-in-Chief” stenciled on the cockpit). [Rich, 2006, pp. 88-90] The crew wears uniforms color-coordinated with the banner and other props the White House public relations staff have deployed. [Rich, 2006, pp. 88-90] Bush makes a dramatic exit from the fighter jet wearing, not civilian clothes, but a flight suit. As he greets the crew, he shouts in response to a reporter’s question: “Yes, I flew it! Of course I liked it!” The idea that Bush, whose time in fighter planes was strictly limited and 30 years out of date, would have been allowed to fly a state-of-the-art fighter jet without training or certification is absurd on its face, but by and large the press swallows Bush’s claim without question. Three hours later, Bush emerges from below decks, this time wearing a business suit. His entrance is timed to coincide with the California sunset, called by Hollywood cinematographers the “magic hour” for the lovely, glowing low light it bathes upon its subject. The huge “Misson Accomplished” banner, produced by Bush public relations staffers and designed to match other event banners and graphics, stretches high above Bush’s head. (One of the chief producers of the event, former ABC producer Scott Sforza, had boarded the Lincoln days before to ensure that production values were met. Sforza made sure that the banner would be visible to the cameras during Bush’s speech—see Before May 1, 2003.) [Unger, 2007, pp. 304-305]
Iraqi Captives No Longer POWs - US military officials will subsequently say that the event means captives being held in Iraq will no longer be treated as prisoners of war under the third article of the Geneva Conventions, but instead as civilians being held by an occupying power under the fourth article of the Geneva Conventions—which allows long-term detentions for prisoners deemed a threat to governing authorities. [Washington Post, 5/21/2004] White House aides tell reporters that Bush will not officially declare the war “over” because, under the Geneva Conventions, that would require the US to release some 6,000 prisoners of war taken during and after the invasion. [Rich, 2006, pp. 88-90]
'Hubris, Arrogance, and Cowboy Swagger' - Author and public administration professor Alasdair Roberts will later write: “President Bush attempted to clothe himself in the garb of the military with the hope of drawing on the esteem with which it was regarded. He did this figuratively—and also literally when… he landed on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.… This was taken as hubris, arrogance, and cowboy swagger. But it is more accurately regarded as a sign of weakness. The heads of other developed democracies do not feel the need to meet the media in military garb. This was evidence of the president’s inability to command authority on his own account.” [Roberts, 2008, pp. 21] Some have a different opinion (see May 1-4, 2003 and May 7, 2003). Immediately after the event, Fox pundit Morton Kondracke says, “This was fantastic theater.” [Rich, 2006, pp. 89]

Entity Tags: US Secret Service, US Department of the Navy, George W. Bush, Geneva Conventions, Morton Kondracke, Scott Sforza, Bush administration (43), Alasdair Roberts

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation, Domestic Propaganda

A military photo of a flag-draped casket.A military photo of a flag-draped casket. [Source: The Memory Hole]Russ Kick, an author and owner of “The Memory Hole,” a Web site dedicated to presenting information it thinks the government does not want revealed, receives a CD from the US military containing 361 photographs of flag-draped coffins returning to the US from overseas postings—mostly Iraq—through Dover Air Force Base. Kick had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in October 2003 for photos of coffins at the base, had been rejected, and had appealed. He is surprised to actually receive the photos. None of the photos contain personally identifying information, and most depict row after row of coffins strapped down in the holds of transport planes. Kick immediately posts the photographs on his Web site, writing, “Score one for freedom of information and the public’s right to know.” The Bush administration immediately orders the Pentagon to conceal such photographs in the future, citing the soldiers’ families’ right to privacy, even though the photographs reveal no personal information about the soldiers. Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA), a former Navy officer, says: “This is not about privacy. This is about trying to keep the country from facing the reality of war.” [Russ Kick, 4/2004; Savage, 2007, pp. 105-106] In 2004, a contractor will be fired for releasing a photo of flag-draped coffins to the press (see April 18, 2004 and After). In 2009, the Obama administration will reverse the Pentagon policy and allow photographs to be published (see February 26, 2009).

Entity Tags: Russ Kick, Bush administration (43), Jim McDermott, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: US Military

One of Tami Silicio’s photos of flag-draped coffins on a transport plane in Kuwait.One of Tami Silicio’s photos of flag-draped coffins on a transport plane in Kuwait. [Source: Tami Silicio / Seattle Times]The Seattle Times publishes several photographs of flag-draped coffins bearing US troops killed in Iraq. The Times is the first newspaper to defy the Pentagon’s ban on such photos appearing in the news media. The photos were taken on April 7 by Tami Silicio, a contract cargo loader for Maytag Aircraft. The photos show caskets being loaded onto a transport plane in Kuwait. “The way everyone salutes with such emotion and intensity and respect,” she says in the Times article accompanying the photo. “The families would be proud to see their sons and daughters saluted like that.… So far this month, almost every night we send them home.… It’s tough. Very tough.” The photo publication provokes a round of criticism from White House officials, who claim the ban is to protect the sensibilities of the families of the fallen, as well as supportive statements from, among others, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
Fired over Photos - Days later, both Silicio and her husband, David Landry, another contract worker for Maytag, are fired over the photo controversy. Concurrently, a Web site called the Memory Hole publishes over 300 such photos, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request [Seattle Times, 4/18/2004; Deseret News, 4/30/2004; Rich, 2006, pp. 123] , and provoking more government protests (see April 14, 2004 and After). Many of the Memory Hole photographs were taken at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. [Voice of America, 4/23/2007]
Silicio's Photographs to Honor War Dead, Not to Make Political Statement - Silicio’s friends describe her as not particularly involved in politics; Silicio herself says of one particularly stark photo she took: “The picture is about them, not me, about how they served their country, paid the price for our freedom, and the respect they receive on their way home from our military personnel at our air terminal.… I guess my feelings were so built up—my heart was so full of grief. And it came out in the picture.” Of the war, she says: “Our sons and daughters are over there now—and we need to support them. On the other hand, I think we should try to find a solution to the conflict other than killing each other.” [Seattle Times, 4/26/2004] She describes herself as feeling “like I was hit in the chest with a steel bar and got my wind knocked out” over being fired. “It wasn’t my intent to lose my job or become famous or anything,” she says. [Seattle Times, 4/22/2004]
'Don't Look' - Shortly after the photos are published, columnist Ellen Goodman writes: “We have shown images of concentration camps and killing fields. The media are full of violence. The recurring question—often unanswered—is how to show that war is hell without the hellishness. Is it wrong to be restrained? Is it invasive, exploitive or honest to show war as horrific? In such a context, how on earth can there be any doubt about showing a sanitized, symbolic array of 20 coffins in a plane or dozens in an aircraft hangar during a month when a hundred Americans are lost? Has our government flunked the confidence test? The disconnect between home front and war front is still enormous. This is a war that demands little sacrifice from civilians. Now those who have made what everyone knows is the ultimate sacrifice are coming home through Dover. And we are asked only one thing: Don’t look.” [Deseret News, 4/30/2004]

Entity Tags: Tami Silicio, John Kerry, Maytag Aircraft, Ellen Goodman, US Department of Defense, David Landry, Seattle Times, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: US Military

Specialist Pat Tillman marching in  
graduation ceremony at Fort Benning, GA. Specialist Pat Tillman marching in graduation ceremony at Fort Benning, GA. [Source: National Ledger]The Pentagon reports that Army Ranger Pat Tillman has died in combat with enemy fighters in Afghanistan. Tillman gave up a multi-million dollar NFL contract to fight against al-Qaeda ( seeMay 23-June 1, 2002, and was was perhaps the most well-known US soldier in the Middle East. [Rich, 2006]
White House Calls Tillman Death "Ultimate Sacrifice" - In a statement made a day after Tillman’s death, Taylor Goss, a White House spokesman, says: “Pat Tillman was an inspiration on and off the football field, as with all who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror. His family is in the thoughts and prayers of President and Mrs. Bush.” [MSNBC, 4/26/2004]
Military Spokesman Tells NBC Tillman Died at Hands of Enemy - According to Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Beevers, Tillman died at the hand of enemy fighters in an ambush near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The Pentagon will release more details of Tillman’s death a week later. [Rich, 2006]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Taliban, Matthew Beevers, Pat Tillman, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: War in Afghanistan

The Silver Star.The Silver Star. [Source: Pat Dollard (.com)]The Pentagon awards Army Ranger Pat Tillman, who it claims died at the hand of the Taliban a week before (see April 23, 2004), a posthumous Silver Star for conspicuous bravery under enemy fire. It also releases more details of Tillman’s death. According to an Army press release, Tillman had stormed an enemy-occupied hill trying to save fellow soldiers pinned down by enemy fire: “Through the fire, Tillman’s voice was heard issuing commands to take the fight to enemy forces emplaced on the dominating high ground [even as he] personally provided suppressive fire with an M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon machine gun.” Weeks later, the Pentagon’s story will prove to be completely false. Tillman actually died from friendly fire. [Rich, 2006, pp. 124]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Taliban, Pat Tillman

Timeline Tags: War in Afghanistan

An image from the ABC broadcast ‘The Fallen.’An image from the ABC broadcast ‘The Fallen.’ [Source: ABC / Poynter (.org)]ABC News reporter Ted Koppel, the anchor of the network’s late-night news show Nightline, marks the first anniversary of the end of what President Bush called “major combat operations” (see May 1, 2003) by reading alound the names of the US troops who have died in Iraq, and showing their pictures as he goes through the list. After the 35-minute segment, which Koppel titles “The Fallen,” he explains the rationale behind it. “Our goal tonight was to elevate the fallen above the politics and the daily journalism,” he says. “The reading tonight of those 721 names was neither intended to provoke opposition to the war nor was it meant as an endorsement. Some of you doubt that. You are convinced that I am opposed to the war. I am not, but that’s beside the point. I am opposed to sustaining the illusion that war can be waged by the sacrifice of the few without burdening the rest of us in any way.” [CNN, 5/1/2004]
Heavy Conservative Criticism - Author and media critic Frank Rich will call it “an unbelievably poignant roll call.” Others, mostly conservative pundits and lawmakers, disagree. Neoconservative pundit and editor William Kristol calls Koppel’s tribute a “stupid statement.” Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly says the show might undermine morale if it tries to “exploit casualties in a time of war,” but fails to mention his own tribute to slain soldier Pat Tillman (see April 23, 2004 and April 29, 2004) the night before. [Rich, 2006, pp. 125] Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center, criticizes what he calls the program’s “partisan nature,” and says its only goal is “to turn public opinion against the war.” [Associated Press, 5/1/2004]
Station Owners Order Broadcast Censored - The Sinclair Broadcast Group, a large regional consortium of local television stations whose executives are heavy donors to Republican campaigns, orders its eight ABC affiliates not to air Koppel’s broadcast. In its statement, Sinclair writes: “The action appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq.… Mr. Koppel and Nightline are hiding behind this so-called tribute in an effort to highlight only one aspect of the war effort and in doing so to influence public opinion against the military action in Iraq.” The statement goes on to ask why ABC does not read the names of the thousands of Americans killed in the 9/11 attacks. Sinclair spokesman Mark Hyman says the broadcast is irrelevant: “Someone who died 13 months ago—why is that news? Those people did not die last week. It’s not an anniversary of the war, it’s not Memorial Day—so why this day? If this is Memorial Day, then go ahead and do it.” Hyman goes on to say of Koppel, “I think clearly here’s a guy who is opposed to the war and is trying to stir up public opposition to it,” and says that ABC is obviously trying to boost its ratings. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) calls the Sinclair decision “deeply offensive,” writing in a letter to Sinclair Broadcast Group president and CEO David Smith: “Your decision to deny your viewers an opportunity to be reminded of war’s terrible costs, in all their heartbreaking detail, is a gross disservice to the public, and to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic. I hope it meets with the public opprobrium it most certainly deserves.” Smith replies: “Our decision was based on a desire to stop the misuse of their sacrifice to support an anti-war position with which most, if not all, of these soldiers would not have agreed. While I don’t disagree that Americans need to understand the costs of war and sacrifices of our military volunteers, I firmly believe that responsible journalism requires that a discussion of these costs must necessarily be accompanied by a description of the benefits of military action and the events that precipitated that action.” [Greensboro News and Record, 4/30/2004; CNN, 5/1/2004; Jay Rosen, 5/1/2004; Associated Press, 5/1/2004; Rich, 2006, pp. 125] Jane Bright, who lost her son Sergeant Evan Ashcraft, writes in response: “The Sinclair Broadcast group is trying to undermine the lives of our soldiers killed in Iraq. By censoring Nightline they want to hide the toll the war on Iraq is having on thousands of soldiers and their families, like mine.” [Associated Press, 5/1/2004] Koppel says that any suggestion by Sinclair that he is “unpatriotic” or trying to “undermine the war effort” is “beneath contempt.” [CNN, 5/1/2004]
Media Watchdog Group Alleges Underlying Agenda - Robert McChesney of the media reform group Free Press says that Sinclair has an underlying motive in censoring the Nightline broadcast: “No one thinks for a second this decision has anything to do with journalism. It’s a politics-slash-business decision that Sinclair made because they don’t want to [anger] the White House.” Sinclair, a political supporter of the Bush administration, is trying to curry favor with the White House to bolster chances of gaining changes in station ownership rules, McChesney says. “The stench of corruption here is extraordinary.” [Associated Press, 5/1/2004]
Political Statement? - Koppel says he has no intention of making any sort of “political statement” by airing the segment. “I don’t want it to make a political statement. Quite the contrary,” he says. “My position on this is I truly believe that people will take away from this program the reflection of what they bring to it.… Why, in heaven’s name, should one not be able to look at the faces and hear the names and see the ages of those young people who are not coming back alive and feel somehow ennobled by the fact that they were willing to give up their lives for something that is in the national interest of all of us?” New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen disagrees. “Despite what he said about it,” Rosen writes, “Ted Koppel and Nightline were making a political statement last night by reading the names of ‘the fallen’ in Iraq. And there is nothing wrong with that—although it is risky because many will object.… By refusing to air the show… Sinclair Broadcasting, the country’s largest owner of television stations, was making a political statement right back.… Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, either, although it is risky and many will object.” ABC makes a political statement by choosing to air the segment, not only on the airwaves, but on the Jumbotron in New York City’s Times Square. And ABC affiliates who decide to ignore Sinclair’s order and air the broadcast are making their own political statement. [Al Tompkins, 4/30/2004; Jay Rosen, 5/1/2004]
Undermining Public Support of War? - Many pundits who argue against the Nightline memorium say that to air such a segment would undermine public support for the war, an argument which Rich later answers: “If the country was as firmly in support of this war as Bush loyalists claimed, by what logic would photographs of its selfless soldiers, either of their faces or their flag-draped coffins (see April 18, 2004 and After), undermine public opinion?” [Rich, 2006, pp. 125] Sue Niederer, who lost her son, Second Lieutenant Seth Dvorin, to a roadside bomb, says: “I feel it’s extremely important that the American people put a face and a name to the dead. When you just listen to a number, you don’t think about what may be behind that—that there’s a family, that there’s actually a person who has lost their life.” [CNN, 5/1/2004] Tim Holmes, who lost his son, Specialist Ernest Sutphin, says of Koppel’s broadcast: “That’s something I’d like to see. I feel like people have a right to see something like that—what’s going on over there.” Marine reservist Chief Warrant Officer David Dennis adds: “Let the American people know the Marines who have died, and everyone who has died. The people need to know who it is that is going out there and making the ultimate sacrifice for them.” [Greensboro News and Record, 4/30/2004] “We should be honoring all the men and women who have served,” says Ivan Medina, who lost his twin brother, Irving Medina. “My hat goes off to Nightline.” [Associated Press, 5/1/2004]
Fox News Responds - Fox News reporter and anchor Chris Wallace says his network will “answer” Koppel’s broadcast by airing its own segment: “[W]e here at Fox News Sunday are going to put together our own list, a list of what we’ve accomplished [in Iraq], with the blood, sweat, and yes, lives of our military.” [Jay Rosen, 5/1/2004]

Entity Tags: William Kristol, Fox News, Tim Holmes, Ted Koppel, ABC News, Bill O’Reilly, Brent Bozell, David Smith, Sue Niederer, Evan Ashcraft, Chris Wallace, David Dennis, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Ernest Sutphin, Robert McChesney, Ivan Medina, Irving Medina, George W. Bush, Seth Dvorin, Frank Rich, Jane Bright, Jay Rosen, Free Press, Mark Hyman, John McCain, Media Research Center, Pat Tillman

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

Coffins of US war dead are shipped through Dover Air Force Base.Coffins of US war dead are shipped through Dover Air Force Base. [Source: Los Angeles Times]The Obama administration announces that the media can now photograph the flag-draped coffins of US soldiers killed in combat as they return through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Under a ban begun by the first Bush administration in 1991, news photographers were prohibited from taking pictures, journalists were prevented from interviewing families of the war dead, and, as the Los Angeles Times notes, “no public record was made about the personal toll exacted by Washington’s policies on individual soldiers and their families.” President George W. Bush claimed the policy was to protect the privacy of military families; critics said that the policy was a public relations ploy to avoid bad publicity by personalizing the cost of war. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that if military families object, the coffins of their loved ones will not be photographed. [Los Angeles Times, 2/26/2009; Associated Press, 2/26/2009]

Entity Tags: Obama administration, Robert M. Gates, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: US Military

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announces that as part of the military’s new policy of allowing the media to cover the return of fallen soldiers to Dover Air Force Base (see February 26, 2009), the Pentagon will now pay for families of those fallen troops to travel to Dover to be present for the return of their family members. Critics of the media policy had noted that some families who were financially unable to be present for the return ceremony might be upset to see the footage of their slain family member on news broadcasts (see February 26, 2009). In a press conference announcing the policy, Gates becomes emotional as he describes his own trip to Dover earlier in the week. “I went to the back of the plane by myself and spent time with each of the transfer cases,” he says, choking up. “I think I’ll stop there.” [CNN, 3/18/2009]

Entity Tags: Robert M. Gates, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: US Military

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