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Pentagon releases photos of fallen U.S. troops

Open-records requests put pressure on military

The casket of CIA officer Johnny Michael Spann, the first American killed in Afghanistan, arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in December 2001.
Cable News Network (CNN)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Under pressure from advocates of open government and a former CNN journalist, the Pentagon has released nearly 300 photos of U.S. troops killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts.

Many show U.S. troops carefully and ceremoniously putting flag-draped coffins onto and taking them off military cargo aircraft. Pentagon officials said they decided to release the photos after a review.

The release appears to pre-empt a court ruling that would have decided if the Pentagon could prevent their release to the public. The status of the lawsuit remains unclear.

Last year former CNN correspondent Ralph Begleiter filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and sued the Pentagon in federal court for failing to follow FOIA regulations on the release of photos and video images.

For years, the Pentagon has not allowed images of fallen soldiers to be released or their caskets to be photographed by media. Defense officials said their policy was implemented out of respect for the families of those killed.

Critics of the policy said the photos are public records and that by not allowing the images to be shown, the military is preventing people from seeing the human cost of war.

Begleiter, now a journalism professor at the University of Delaware, worked with the National Security Archive, a group founded in 1985 by journalists and scholars, to get the pictures released.

"This is an important victory for the American people, for the families of troops killed in the line of duty during wartime, and for the honor of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country," he wrote in a statement posted Tuesday on the group's Web site.

According to the National Security Archive, the Pentagon released a CD-ROM containing 268 images Monday.

In many of the pictures black boxes are used to block out faces and identifications of troops, units and equipment.

The blacking out of images conceals identifiable personal information of military personnel involved, Pentagon officials said.

According to Begleiter and Thomas Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive, military officials have told them such photos were no longer being taken as of April 2004, when Begleiter's first FOIA request was filed.

Last year the Pentagon also released more than 360 photos showing flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq and Afghanistan -- but at the time called the release a clerical error.

From CNN's Mike Mount

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