The row over the refusal by American authorities to release a cockpit recording of a United States pilot opening fire on British forces in Iraq took a new turn today when The Sun published a transcript of the material.
The story, tagged World Exclusive on the paper’s front page, was backed up by the newspaper’s website, where the 15-minute recording could be viewed.
In the recording, the pilot of one of two US A-10 Thunderbolt jets involved in the attack says, after they realise their mistake: “We’re in jail dude”.
The other pilot, who opened fire, weeps, saying: “God dammit.”
The tape is a recording of the moment that one of the jets launched two devastating attacks on a British armoured convoy, killing Lance Corporal of Horse Matty Hull.
An inquest into L/Cpl Hull’s death was adjourned by Oxfordshire Deputy Assistant Coroner Andrew Walker last week, after the Ministry of Defence refused to agree to the hearing seeing a tape of the incident taken by one of the attacking aircraft’s flight data recorder.
Mr Walker said he “had no choice” but to delay his verdict until the Government produced the recording, and added that the ministry’s failure to get authorisation to show it was a “matter of profound regret”.
The ministry said the United States authorities regarded the material as classified, and it therefore could not be shown without their consent.
The Ministry of Defence initially told L/Cpl Hull’s family the recording did not exist, but it found its way into the hands of Oxford coroner Andrew Walker, who is hearing the inquest into the soldier’s death.
The ministry today refused today to comment on the videotape’s contents.
The transcript discloses a series of errors immediately before the attack, near Basra in southern Iraq on March 28, 2003.
On several occasions the pilots, a Major and a Lieutenant Colonel, both believed to be reservists who had never been in action before, say they can see orange panels on top of the armoured vehicles, which were used to identify them as coalition, rather than Iraqi, forces.
But they convince themselves that the orange panels are enemy rocket launchers after being told that there are no friendly forces in the area.
The pilots, who were in contact with US Marine Corps Forward Air Controllers who were embedded with British ground units, were on a mission to destroy Iraqi artillery and rocket launchers dug in 25 miles north of Basra.
L/Cpl Hull, 25, from Windsor, Berkshire, died in the incident and four other members of the Household Cavalry Regiment were injured.
A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said: “A copy of the video was used as evidence by the Board of Inquiry’s (BOI) investigation into the incident.
“This recording is the property of the United States Government and the MoD does not have the right to release it without their permission.
“When the BOI findings were released to the family we did inform them that some classified material had been withheld, but we did not specify its exact nature.
“There has never been any intention to deliberately deceive or mislead L/Cpl of Horse Hull’s family.”
Speaking after last week’s adjournment, widow Susan Hull said she was “not surprised, but very disappointed”.
The US Embassy said authorities were looking at whether the tape could be declassified.
Official David Johnson told BBC Radio that the US had been working with the British Government to provide them with “materials which help them understand what went on”, adding “Under our law and our procedures we are very open with your Government in providing them with information which is classified.”
Asked why the US was withholding the tape, Mr Johnson said US soldiers were sent into combat under certain laws which should not be changed “after the fact”.
He went on: “We expect our forces to operate under a set of predictable laws which are established before the fact.
“One thing I want to make very clear is our heart goes out to this family. This is an extraordinary tragedy that they have endured and we are very sorry for what has happened.
“But I think that does not take away from the need to have a body of law which is followed and a set of expectations we can have our combat forces – yours and ours – go by when they go into battle.”
He said he had no way to confirm whether the video was accurate, but if it was true it demonstrated that the pilots involved were “sickened” by what had happened.
Mr Johnson added that the US would declassify the tape unless it would put soldiers at future risk.
“I can’t tell you what is revealed by this – I’m not a technical expert -which may put forces at risk in the future, so that’s something we have to be very careful about,” he said.
“If indeed it can be declassified, of course it will.”
Mr Johnson said it would not be accurate to say the British Government had been applying “pressure” on the US over the incident.
But he said: “We have had discussions with (Constitutional Affairs Minister) Ms Harman. We have had discussions with other officials in your Government as well about how we could be of assistance in this case.”
The transcript includes repeated questions from the pilots to the air controller about the location of friendly forces.
It also reveals that doubt about the orange panels on the British convoy continued up to the point that the pilots were given final clearance to attack.
General Patrick Cordingley, who commanded British troops during the first Gulf War, said it was a “pity” that the tape had been released.
“It’s obviously going to stir up the British press and the danger is they will be calling for blood,” he told BBC Radio.
He could “fully understand” why the family and others wanted the tape to be released, he said, adding: “There will always be these mistakes in war.”
Stewart Purvis, who was editor-in-chief of ITN when reporter Terry Lloyd was killed by so-called friendly fire, said there were clear “parallels”
between the two incidents.
In both, the US authorities had refused to co-operate, the Ministry of Defence WAS unable to force them to co-operate and the victim’s families had been “lied to”, he told the BBC.
:: The Ministry of Defence told the Coroner on Wednesday January 31 that National Security meant that journalists at the inquest should be banned from making any mention of the colour of smoke deployed by coalition forces when there has been a friendly fire incident, and the colour of the panels which put on top of military vehicles to identify them as friendly to other coalition force.
Press Association Aislinn Simpson said she and BBC journalist Angus Crawford pointed out to the ministry’s lawyers that the details of the red smoke and orange panels were in the MoD Board of Inquiry report published on the ministry’s own website.
The following day, the lawyers told the Coroner that the colours were no longer an issue since they understood the information was on the website and therefore in the public domain.
But the Board of Inquiry report itself vanished from the website.
An MoD official said the report was removed because the ministry had been “made aware” that it contained information pertinent to national security.