Lawsuit seeks public view of gulf war coffins WAR IN THE GULF

February 23, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Accusing the Bush administration of trying to hide some of the horrors of the gulf war, a group of journalists, veterans and military families asked a federal judge yesterday to order the Pentagon to let the public watch the return home of the coffins of dead soldiers.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court here, the group said President Bush and his aides are seeking unconstitutionally to "control and manipulate American public opinion" to assure homefront support of the war.

Filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the lawsuit challenges a Pentagon policy forbidding the public and press to be on hand when military bearing the bodies of war casualties arrive at Delaware's Dover Air Force Base, the military's main mortuary.

Kate Martin, an ACLU lawyer, said "the government clearly fears the impact on the people of this country" of watching "the graphic visuals" of coffins being taken off planes and lined up in rows.

Sally Tom, of Jefferson, Pa., who heads the Military Families Support Network, said the president wants the bodies of war casualties "ignominiously slipped into and out of Dover under the cover of darkness and under a press blackout," which she called "an act of collective denial of the horrors of war."

The most sharply worded challenge yesterday to the Dover policy came from Bobby Muller, of Washington, director of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. Declaring that the Persian Gulf war so far has been "a one-way slaughter," he said the apparently imminent start of a ground offensive means there will be "a mutually shared blood bath," with perhaps 30,000 U.S. casualties.

The lawsuit does not ask for a right to view individual bodies of the dead casualties. Instead, it asks for the right to be at Dover AFB to witness the return of the planes carrying the military coffins, the unloading of those coffins and any ceremonies held there.

ACLU lawyers said they would soon ask the judge assigned to the case, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, to issue a formal order against the ban on press and public access to such events.

The lawsuit argues that Dover AFB has been open for 18 years to the public and press when military casualties arrived. It suggests that one possible explanation for the shift in policy was President Bush's personal pique at being shown on television in December 1989 making "frivolous comments" when, on the other side of a split TV screen, films were shown of military caskets arriving from the Panama invasion.

Joining in the lawsuit, along with the military families' and veterans' groups, were several news organizations and individual reporters and photographers.

The Justice Department, which will represent the Pentagon, had no immediate comment.

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