By: Lesley Messer
On Aug. 4, the Pentagon agreed to henceforth respond, as expeditiously as possible, to all future Freedom of Information requests for photos of the returning coffins of service members killed in Iraq. In press accounts, credit for this change of course — the result of a legal settlement — was often given to a surprising source: a j-school professor in Delaware.
Ralph Begleiter, a professor of communication and distinguished journalist in residence at the University of Delaware, filed a FOIA lawsuit in the fall of 2004, accusing the Pentagon of using delaying tactics in response to his repeated requests for the images. “I’m not one who thinks we should sue for the sake of suing, but we accomplished a goal,” he says. “My feeling is that these photos are being created for documenting the progress of the war, and that documentation of war ought to be part of the public record.”
Begleiter worked as a foreign correspondent for CNN from 1981 to 1999 before turning to teaching. “I’ve been a little surprised that journalist hopefuls seem a little reluctant about the concept of challenging authority,” he says. “So I talk about the Freedom of Information Act as one way citizens can challenge their government, not only legally but with good purpose. That’s the whole watchdog function of the news media.”
The case began for Begleiter after hearing about Russ Kick, who runs a Web site called The Memory Hole. Kick had filed a request for images from Afghanistan. The government provided them, but a week later declared that displaying the photos violated the rights of the soldiers’ families. The statement also said that no other photographs would be released.
In April 2004, Begleiter asked for images of military personnel killed in Iraq. When he hadn’t received anything by October, he decided to take legal action. Under FOIA, federal agencies must respond in some way to requests within 20 working days. Complexity and the scope of the request are factors in how long it takes for an answer, but if there’s no answer within that time, the person seeking the information can take the case to court.
“I wasn’t surprised when it developed that way, but I was neither itching for it nor expecting a lawsuit,” he says. “I thought when we made the case for the release, the government would recognize that they’d have to comply with the law and the documents would have to be released. In the end, that’s what they did.”
Since 1991, the Pentagon has barred images of coffins, purportedly to protect the privacy of the casualties’ families. But Begleiter says that the Pentagon’s letters to him never mentioned the families. Instead, they focused on the safety of the soldiers involved. In April, responding to Begleiter, the Pentagon released more than 700 photos, but many blacked out the faces of troops serving as honor guards (pallbearers) at military funerals.
“They call it ‘redaction,’ but I call it censorship,” he says. Begleiter explains that the photographs do not reveal anything about the identity of the casualty, and that the redactions mar “the sad and proud faces of those who have volunteered to be honor guards for their comrades who died in combat.” The latest release this summer included five previously unreleased photos, and about two dozen uncensored photos that had been redacted before. (The photographs can be found on the National Security Archive’s Web site.)
“These images aren’t for me. I sought them on behalf of the public, and I had to find a way to make sure that the public could access them,” Begleiter says. “I’ve had a number of schools contact me that are studying the Freedom of Information Act. All sorts of news organizations have made use of the photos. These images were created by the government, taken by and for the taxpayers and the citizens of the United States, including the families of those who died in the war.” Begleiter is also seeking video footage.