A leaked cockpit video published Tuesday captures a dramatic exchange between two American pilots whose voices choke up when they learn they have killed a British soldier in a 2003 friendly fire incident in Iraq. "I'm going to be sick. We're in jail, dude," one pilot says.
Despite British requests, the Pentagon had refused to release the video to the family of Lance Cpl. Matty Hull, who died when U.S. jets fired on his convoy in the southern city of Basra. But after excerpts of the video were published in The Sun newspaper, and the footage was widely broadcast, U.S. authorities agreed to release it for the British 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 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.
The dramatic cockpit video and recording begins with two pilots identifying a target and checking with ground control that there are no coalition troops in the area — to which ground control says, "That is an affirm. You are well clear of friendlies," according to the transcript released by The Sun.
Tempers flare between the two pilots, with one saying it looks like the prospective targets are carrying orange rockets. Coalition troops are often equipped with bright orange markers to identify them as friendly forces.
"I know what you're talking about!" the first pilot says, after asking about the alleged rockets.
"OK, well they got orange rockets on them," the second pilot says.
"Orange rockets?" the first pilot asks again, telling the other pilot they need to get back to base soon.
"I think killing these damn rocket launchers, it would be great," the second pilot says.
The two U.S. A-10 jets opened fire on Hull's tank, which was part of a five-vehicle convoy engaged in combat outside Basra on March 28, 2003. Four other soldiers were wounded, including the convoy's leader, Capt. Alexander MacEwen.
Gunfire is heard. Minutes later they learn there are friendly forces in the area and that one person is dead and another is wounded.
Pilot 1: "I'm going to be sick."
Pilot 2: "Ah f---."
Pilot 1: "Did you hear?"
Pilot 2: "Yeah, this sucks."
Pilot 1: "We're in jail, dude."
The pilots communicate with ground control again. "They did say there were no friendlies," the first pilot says.
"Yeah, I know that thing with the orange panels is going to screw us. They look like orange rockets on top," the second pilot says.
The first pilot then asks if his tape is still on. Seconds later, there is silence.
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, said Lt. Col. Teresa Connor, a spokeswoman at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla.
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.
CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports that the coroner's office says the tape may now be used in court, as it had come into the public domain.
The U.S. military has no plan to release the names of the pilot or their unit, Connor 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."
Oxfordshire Assistant Deputy Coroner Andrew Walker is hearing the inquest, which resumes Feb. 16.
British coroners tasked with inquests into suspicious deaths have become increasingly critical of military errors. One coroner last year criticized American authorities for failing to provide access and name U.S. Marines involved in the death of British television journalist Terry Lloyd, shot in Iraq in March 2003.
Johnson said the British inquests were "unique."
"It's a very delicate situation in looking at this issue in the context of domestic law when what has happened has occurred on the battlefield," he said.
He said the video humanized the tragedy on both sides but that nothing could compare to the family's loss.
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."
Susan Hull, Hull's widow, welcomed the release of video, saying it was "vital evidence and must be shown" at the inquest.
"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.
Former U.S intelligence officer Bob Ayers, now a security analyst based in London, said pilots in fluid combat situations often do not have real-time intelligence and logistics information. He also said the situation underscores the problem of forces unable to communicate with each other on the ground.
"This was happening during the mad rush toward Baghdad," Ayers said. "You have planes that are going 300 mph and by the time they get coordinates, they're five to 10 miles off the mark."
Paul Smyth, a navigator and wing commander with the Royal Air Force who flew combat missions to Iraq in 1991, said the pilots should not be blamed.
"I had a lot of empathy with the pilots and how awful it must have felt," he said, noting that units are provided with only a limited number of radios and have limited ability to communicate between forces.
"I don't think we should be looking at blame," he said. "If you look at the conflicts in North Korea and other places, there have been advances. It's a case of the glass being half full and half empty, but at the end of the day you're never going to be able to completely eradicate friendly fire incidents in fluid combat situations."