On CBS News's "Face the Nation" yesterday, Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) told Bob Schieffer that the Defense Department policy forbids him from paying his respects to fallen soldiers as their coffins return to the US through the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Though no cameras and no press would accompany him, Biden said he had to receive express permission from the Pentagon to join a grieving family that had requested his presence as they met their deceased son who died in a car bomb in Iraq.
"I'm allowed in the military base. I'm not allowed to go to the mortuary," he said.
Senator Biden added that it is his understanding that the policy originates with Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.
In April 2004, published photographs of flag-draped coffins arriving at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware prompted the Pentagon to ban the release of such pictures. After Ralph J. Begleiter, a University of Delaware professor and former CNN correspondent, filed a Freedom of Information Act request, the Pentagon reversed the ban in April 2005 and released 361 undated, unlabelled pictures of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base.
Read excerpts of the CBS News transcript:
SCHIEFFER: You talk about not fully informing the American people. There's no question that the administration has at least discouraged people from reporting on casualties there. For example, the casualties all the people who have been killed in Iraq come back through the...
Sen. BIDEN: True.
SCHIEFFER: ...Air Force base in Delaware.
Sen. BIDEN: In Dover.
SCHIEFFER: Do you ever go out to meet those flights out there?
Sen. BIDEN: I've tried to and they will not allow me to. As a matter of fact...
SCHIEFFER: Who will not allow you to?
Sen. BIDEN: The Defense Department. Look...
SCHIEFFER: Wait a minute. You're a United States senator.
Sen. BIDEN: I'm a United States senator. Well, let me be very...
SCHIEFFER: They're not letting you on a military base?
Sen. BIDEN: I'm allowed in the military base. I'm not allowed to go to the mortuary. I'm not allowed to be there when the flag-draped casket comes in. As a matter of fact, Bob, one family asked me whether I would meet their son who was tragically gunned down, actually car bomb in Iraq. This is several months ago. I said I would be honored to be with them. They wanted me to come with the minister. They wanted me through the whole process. The commander of the base told me that he couldn't allow that to happen and he's a friend--this is not like there's no hostility there; I'm on the base all the time--until he cleared it with the Pentagon. And I'm told the civilian leadership in the Pentagon. So in order for me to literally go in and accompany a mom and a dad and a son to pick up the body of a dead son, a young Marine killed in Iraq, I was not just able to do it as a senior United States senator, former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee--not like I'm new to this. I had to get specific permission for that specific event. I wanted to go when more than one Marine came back dead and I just wanted to show my respect. I didn't want any press there. There was no press. We weren't talking about that.
SCHIEFFER: So you think it is the secretary of Defense himself who's blocking you?
Sen. BIDEN: Well, that's my understanding. I don't know that for a fact, but it's not the military. It's the civilian decision in the Defense Department that you're not allowed to be there just to show respects. And let me emphasize here now. No press. No cameras. Nothing. I have made it a practice. The reason I've gone to Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia is to demonstrate to those troops there that I understand what's going on and to be with them. No press. And they won't even let me on the base. Now, look, I'm not...
Ms. TUMULTY: Why? Why do you think that is?
Sen. BIDEN: They have this generic policy that it is a private matter. Well, I don't know any family that would--maybe there is--but I don't know any family that if a member of the government, a high-ranking official, was there just to pay their respects--and, look, this is heart-wrenching stuff. I mean, you were saying--maybe I shouldn't say this--before the show how it gets you on your nightly news broadcast when you talk about these young men and women who die. I mean, I think it's important for the nation to acknowledge and I think part of my job is to demonstrate privately ...