The Pentagon has announced a new policy that will allow families to decide whether flag-draped caskets of American soldiers killed in war can be photographed by news organizations.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced a reversal in department policy regarding the photography of coffins containing the remains of soldiers killed in combat. 

"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. We ought not to presume to make that decision in their place," he said.

The photos will now be permitted at Dover Air Force Base in the eastern state of Delaware where casualties are brought back to the United States before they can be transferred to their hometowns.

The new policy lifts a media ban put in place in 1991 under former President George H.W. Bush. Some critics of the prohibition argued the government was trying to hide the human cost of war.

Secretary Gates says there is a difference of opinion within the Pentagon about whether to change the policy, based on concerns about what would be in the best interests of the grieving families.

Gates says he was never comfortable with the ban.

U.S. President Barack Obama asked the Secretary of Defense to review the ban and Gates says he wants to implement the change swiftly. 

"I have tasked a working group to quickly come up with a plan to implement this new policy. Further 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," he said.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says families will have the final say and the new policy will protect their right to privacy.

Gibbs says President Obama supports the change.

Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also supports the new policy. 

"We have seen so many families go through so much and in that they have been extraordinarily strong 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," he said.

Admiral Mullen says his views on the issue have evolved and indicated that witnessing the procedure at the base helped determine his decision. 

"I have been to Dover several times. I have seen the ceremony there. It is an extraordinarily well run, dignified, respectful ceremony. Those men and women who do this at Dover know that, execute it and are very proud of what they do. I am comfortable any American who saw that would be very proud of how that is executed there," he said.

So for the first time in many years Americans will see pictures of flag-draped coffins arriving back in the United States from war zones overseas.

At least 4,800 members of the U.S. military have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.