U.S. officials have agreed to release a cockpit video capturing a dramatic exchange between two American pilots involved in a friendly fire incident that killed a British soldier in Iraq, but questions remained Wednesday as to why the video was withheld for so long.
The friendly fire incident happened nearly four years ago but previously the Pentagon said the video was classified. That meant the footage could not be presented in open court during a British inquest into the death of Lance Cpl. Matty Hull, who was killed when at least one U.S. jet fired on his convoy in the southern city of Basra.
But after excerpts of the leaked video were published in The Sun newspaper Tuesday and the footage was widely broadcast, U.S. authorities agreed to release it for the inquest.
Neither pilot from the Boise, Idaho-based 190th Fighter Squadron was disciplined in the U.S. military’s own investigation, which concluded the pilots “followed the procedures and processes for engaging targets,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Tuesday.
The U.S. military has no plan to release the names of the pilot or their unit, said Lt. Col. Teresa Connor, a spokeswoman at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla.
The Sun reported Wednesday that one of the pilots was promoted to colonel with the Air National Guard’s A10 tankbuster training wing at a top U.S. base, teaching “novices how to dive and strafe targets.”
Leak strains relations
The leaking of the tape strained relations between the Department of Defense and their British counterparts, who were previously given a DVD of the classified video.
A publicly releasable version of the U.S. investigation report, which found the pilots followed procedures and practices for engaging targets, was given to the British Defense Ministry in November 2003, Connor said.
It was unclear why neither British nor U.S. authorities released the findings.
On Tuesday, after the leaking of the tape, Connor said Central Command authorized Britain to display the video to the coroner and family in the presence of the Defense Ministry. It is up to the ministry to decide whether and when to do so, she said.
The U.S. Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, David Johnson, said he thought the coroner had already viewed the video.
“Our focus is really on finding out where our procedures fell down and allowed information that was classified to be provided to individuals who did not have appropriate access to it,” Johnson told the AP, saying that U.S. and British exchanges had been “military to military.”
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington that he had read the transcript of the incident. “My reaction is that these people immediately understood that it was a terrible, terrible mistake, and they felt immediate remorse of what happened.”
'The right thing to do'
Susan Hull, Hull’s widow, welcomed the release of video, saying it was “vital evidence and must be shown” at the inquest, which resumes Feb. 16.
“The inquest is my one and only chance to hear how and why Matty died,” she said in a statement released by her lawyers. “I would have preferred to hear the evidence from the U.S. pilots themselves. However, they cannot be compelled to come and they have not come voluntarily. The video is therefore vital evidence and must be shown. I do not relish hearing it in open court, but after years of being told that it did not exist or was secret I feel that it was right not to give up hope.”
Previously, the Defense Ministry had said it was unable to persuade the U.S. to declassify the footage — a recording British authorities initially claimed did not exist.
Britain’s defense secretary, Des Browne, welcomed the U.S. release of the video. “The release of classified information, even for the closest of allies, is never straightforward, but this is the right thing to do,” he said.