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Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Molino Briefing on Remains Transfer Policy

Presenters: Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy John Molino
April 22, 2004
Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Molino Briefing on Remains Transfer Policy

           Molino: Gang, good afternoon.  I'm happy to be here.  I'm happy to talk a little bit about the policy.

           

            About a year ago actually in the briefing room I conducted a briefing on this subject and many of you may have been in the room.  We talked about it a little bit.  It seems to be coming to the fore again so I'm happy for the opportunity to kind of address it again and talk about it.

 

            The policy's not a new one.  It goes back… the current policy goes back to 1991, and what I think is one of the redeeming qualities is that it's been tested over time.  It's a policy that reflects what the families have told us they would like by way of the treatment of remains of the loved ones who have made that sacrifice.  And it also is a policy that has spanned more than one Administration and more than one party so that it gets away to the extent any policy in this building can get away from it, it gets away from a political aspect that might motivate us.

 

            Beyond that, I'm really open to whatever you might have by way of questions that I could help with.

 

            Q:  Might we ask in this particular situation which has gained a lot of publicity where this woman has been fired for taking a picture, did the Pentagon fire her, or did the firm fire her, or did you advise the firm to fire her or bring any pressure?  How did that come about?

 

            Molino:  To my knowledge, I had no contact with her company, had no contact with the firm that fired her. I read in this morning's paper that she had been let go.  I was unaware until I read it that that was even being considered.

 

            I gave an interview with a Seattle-based radio program yesterday and I was asked about would the Pentagon take any sanctions against the lady and I indicated that I didn't think that was appropriate.

 

            Q:  You didn't think that the question was appropriate or that --

 

            Molino:  No, no.  I didn't think it would be appropriate for the Pentagon to take any sanctions against her, and none were planned by us.  The company made that decision on their own, as far as I know.

 

            Q:  Do you think she should be reinstated?

 

            Molino:  I think it's a decision that I really have no stake in and shouldn't say.  It's between her company and her.

 

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, earlier today Secretary Rumsfeld was championing the FOIA Act and [inaudible] FOIA Act and how wonderful it [inaudible].

 

            Molino:  Right.

 

            Q:  -- release photos of [inaudible] and then it was immediately, almost immediately shut down, sort of a reverse [inaudible] from Dover Air Force Base.  Would the Department of Defense at all go to AMC and say you need to reverse this decision, why did you let these photos out?  Were you involved in that decision at all?

 

            Molino:  I was not involved in the decision about the release of those photographs. I understand several photographs have been released. I've not seen the photographs.  I do know the attorneys are looking into the case to see if that was an appropriate action or an inappropriate action.

 

            By all means we support FOIA. FOIA is the law of the land.  The law of the land trumps policy all the time. If for some reason we find that the policy is inconsistent with the FOIA we'll look at whether or not the policy needs to be changed.

 

            I would say, however, that the current policy has been tested in the courts and has been withheld. I think it's a reasonable policy.  As I said in the opening, I think it has stood the test of time.  And more importantly probably than any of this, we continually get feedback from families that this reflects their desires to maintain a degree of privacy that we can while still allowing you access to information and also maintains the respect and the dignified treatment of those remains as they're transferred.

 

            So the short answer to your question is no involvement from my office with Air Mobility Command.

 

            Q:  If anyone can hear me, Bryan, can you spell your last name.

 

            Whitman:  Except that the person talking is not Bryan Whitman, if you think it's Bryan Whitman.

 

            Molino: No, it's John Molino.

 

            Q:  M-O?

 

            Molino:  L-I-N-O.

 

            Q:  What's your title?

 

            Molino:  Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy.  It takes two business cards to do that. [Laughter]

 

            Q:  You say it represents families' feelings and requests.  How do you come to that determination? Is that anecdotal?  Do you ask them, all family members?  Do you take any kind of survey?  Can you talk a little bit about how you come to that conclusion?

 

            Molino:  Sure, I can.  We often have family readiness group meetings.  We have meetings of a Joint Casualty Assistance Board that we have with the services.  After services, graveside services are held we do solicit family reactions. It's through those means that we get this that we're being consistent.

 

            Keep in mind that any media coverage at a graveside, for instance, is entirely up to the families.  The appropriateness of that, the degree to which they want the press at the individual family services is entirely up to them.  But what we're talking about is the policy that deals with the transfer of remains along the way.

 

            Q:  Of course there have been notable exceptions in the last several years to this for some events.  I think the return of the remains from the Cole, the return of the remains from the Ron Brown accident.  What is the policy and standard, and what happens when there's an exception?  What makes an exception happen?

 

            Molino:  I don't know if I can adequately address that because I don't know that there's a general standard or a threshold through which you have to pass to say by golly that's the one we'd have to waive it for.

 

            Q:  In other words, if the President wants to attend some return ceremony that's the standard?

 

            Molino:  Certainly if the Commander-in-Chief said I want to have a ceremony there would be a ceremony and there would be a -- his presence would certainly be welcome.

 

            At Dover, as a rule, there is no ceremony.  It's a ritual more than a ceremony to my mind.  It is a dignified passage, if you will, of the remains from the airplane to the mortuary where the remains are prepared for their final burial, and then again to an airplane or to a hearse depending on where the location is and it is moved to that location.

 

            There have been exceptions to the policy, you're absolutely correct; and they're directed by my superiors when that occurs.  I don't know what would go in to say that we've crossed that threshold.

 

            To my mind, I'm not sure, I could not think of when I would recommend starting an action and working its way up that we change the policy.  Because I think it's a reasonable policy.

 

            Q:  If there's been a court ruling on this then there must have been something beyond a policy.  There must have been a regulation.  And how that would square with our FOI decision, your Freedom of Information decision to release hundreds of photos last week to an internet site.  Could you just clarify those two things, if you could?

 

            Molino:  I'll try. My understanding is the policy that went into effect in 1991 was challenged in the courts by the media to gain access to the transfer of remains at Dover, and that the Court ruled that the media, the press, did not have the right under the First Amendment to go to Dover to see this.  That the department, it was within their authority to restrict… to no press coverage that event at Dover Air Force Base.

 

            The services have policies that have derived from the DoD policy and the public affairs guidance that's out in that regard.  I don't know if that answers your question.

 

            Q:  That helps, for sure.  And then the FOI law, of course, would have been governing this release to the internet site, a different law.

 

            Molino:  That appears to be… certainly, the release was made by the FOIA office at Air Mobility Command and I'm certain that the person who released it believed they were acting consistent with the law.  The attorneys now are looking to see if the policy and the law are in conflict or if the policy and the law are not in conflict and there was just some misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the situation that allowed that release.

 

            Q:  Secretary Molino, on that point as I understand, can you confirm whether that FOIA was released on an appeal?  That it was initially denied and it was on an appeal that those photographs were released, which would suggest that, on an appeal of course, that this went through an awful lot of vetting through the Department's legal attorneys.

 

            Molino:  I can tell you that I don't have a clue as to what the right answer is to that.  I'll have to defer to someone who might know that answer because I don't know. FOIA is outside my area of responsibility and I don't know the answer to that.

 

            Q:  You say lawyers are reviewing it, do you mean AMC lawyers or Defense Department lawyers?

 

            Molino:  I think, and I stand to be corrected, that our general counsel is working with the AMC folks.  I think that is correct, and if it's not I would ask the folks standing behind me, maybe they're shaking their head either up and down or across, I don't know.

 

            Q:  They're [inaudible]. [Laughter]

 

            Molino:  And I don't blame them.

 

            Q:  What is objectionable?  What does the Department of Defense find objectionable about these images being shown to the public?

 

            Molino:  It's more a case of what the families might find objectionable to these images.

 

            Q:  It's DoD policy though.

 

            Molino:  Right. It's a DoD policy that we believe and we are convinced reflects the families' desires.  Families can make a decision in their individual cases insofar as graveside services or church services are concerned, but the transfer of remains at Dover or in Europe, for that matter, we believe that we are, we have a policy that is reflective of what the families desire vis-à-vis privacy, vis-à-vis the dignity of the event, and until we're shown otherwise I think we're pretty comfortable with the policy.  As I said, it has been around for about 14 years.

 

            Q:  So this has nothing to do with quashing, to use the term, quashing public awareness of the fact that dozens of bodies are coming home from Iraq?  This has nothing to do with that is what you're saying?

 

            Molino:  It doesn't from my perspective, and the reason why I say that is that when I go home in the evenings the TV screens are filled with news of what's going on overseas.  The TV that I have in my office during the day is filled with first-hand accounts of what's going on overseas.

 

            The department I know releases the numbers of casualties.  I know that when families are notified the department also releases the names and you have a current count.

 

            So I don't know what that would achieve.  If that were in concert with barring the other things, goodness, we had embedded reporters during the war who were showing first-hand what was going on.

 

            So I don't see that as our motivation, and that's one of the things I'm happy about, that this has actually spanned different Administrations from different parties so that we can say when we get to the, when you see it from a perspective of trying to be responsive to the families, it makes sense.

 

            Q:  You hit on a very good point there --

 

            Whitman:  Hang on just a second.

 

            Q:  -- that the Department of Defense releases the names --

 

            Whitman:  Hang on just a second on the phone.

 

            Q:  -- and everything else, how is that not an insensitivity to the families --

 

            Whitman:  Hang on a second.  We've got some folks that are on deadline so we're going to wrap this up with one more question from the room right here.

 

            Q:  You talked about you've spoken with the families and you believe the policy is the way it is because by and large they don't want images taken of these returns.  Can you give us an idea, is that sort of a continual process, or did you consult them in '91 and that's why the policy stands today? I mean do you meet with families on a regular basis?

 

            Molino:  Yes.  That's what I intended to imply.  We do meet with families.  We do meet with the service representatives who are responsible for the service policies, and we would be responsive to any input that would say it looks like the tide is turning, it looks like families actually think this would be a good idea.  And in fact we're getting none of that. I think it's pretty obvious that it's not a good idea.

 

            To be very frank with you we don't want the remains of our service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice to be the subject of any kind of attention that is unwarranted or undignified.

 

            Whitman:  Thanks for joining us. I know it was on short notice.  I hope this has provided you with some understanding.

 

            I'd also encourage you to take a look at Mr. Molino's transcript if you're interested in this from a year ago. It's on the Defense Link site. [inaudible] and in great detail.