WASHINGTON– The Defense Department will allow the news media to photograph the flag-draped caskets of fallen U.S. troops returning home if their families agree, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today.

The announcement authorizes family members to choose whether to allow media access to the homecomings at Dover Air Force Base, Del., reversing a long-standing policy barring the press.

“I have decided that the decision regarding media coverage of the dignified transfer process at Dover should be made by those most directly affected — on an individual basis — by the families of the fallen,” Gates said at a Pentagon news conference.

“We ought not to presume to make that decision in their place,” added Gates, who began reviewing the policy at the request of President Barack Obama.

The Defense Department’s choice to shift course was informed by sources that include the military services and groups that represent military families, the secretary said.

But the issue created divisions within the department, Gates said, adding that he was rebuffed when he broached the topic last year, before reaching out more broadly during the most recent policy review.

“I had asked about changing the policy in Dover over a year ago and, although when I got the response that I did — which recommended no change — I accepted that at the time,” he said. “I must say I was never comfortable with it.”

The secretary has appointed a group to quickly develop a plan to implement the policy, which reverses the restriction put in place by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.

Under the blanket restriction, the media has been barred from photographing the flag-draped caskets of about 3,850 U.S. servicemembers killed in action since 2001.

“I have tasked the working group to examine ways in which we might further assist the families of those who have made the supreme sacrifice for our country,” Gates said. He added that he expects the group to work under “short deadlines.”

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed that military families deserve foremost consideration in dealing with such issues.

“We’ve seen so many families go through so much, and in that, they have been extraordinarily strong,” Mullen told reporters. “And meeting their needs, their requests in the most dignified, respectful, focused way we can was very much a driver for me in supporting this change.

“Because it is family-centric here more than anything else, I’m very, very supportive,” he added.

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