A diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks shows that the US military covered up the killing of dozens of civilians during a cruise missile strike in south Yemen in December 2009.
The secret cable from January 2010 corroborated images released earlier this year by Amnesty International, implicating the US in the use of cluster bombs. The cable was sent by Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh to US General David Petraeus, saying his government would "continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours."
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According to the cable, this prompted Yemeni Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi "to joke that he had just 'lied' by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG [Republic of Yemen Government]."
"The cable appears to confirm Amnesty International's finding that the Abyan strike was carried out by the US military, not Yemeni government forces," Philip Luther, a Deputy Director for Amnesty International, said.
On December 17, 2009, an alleged al-Qaeda training camp in Abyan was hit by a cruise missile, killing 41 local residents, including 14 women, 21 children, and 14 alleged al-Qaeda members.
According to the leaked cable, President Saleh praised the strikes, "but said that 'mistakes were made' in the killing of civilians in Abyan." Gen. Petraeus responded that only three civilians, the wife and two children of an al-Qaeda member, were killed.
After the attack, Amnesty International requested information from the Pentagon about US involvement in the missile attack, but received no response. The Pentagon later released a statement saying
that questions on operations against al-Qaeda should be posed to the Yemeni government.
The leaked cable revealed that Gen. Petraeus proposed abandoning the use of cruise missiles and instead using fixed-wing bombers circling outside of Yemeni territory to strike at targets using precision-guided bombs "when actionable intelligence became available." The proposal was welcomed by President Saleh.
Security assistance to Yemen may substantially increase, if Gen. Petraeus has his way.
"The General told Saleh that he had requested USD 150 million in security assistance for 2010, a substantial increase over the 2009 amount of USD 67 million," the cable states.
Amnesty International is calling on the US to investigate the use of drones by US forces for targeted killings of individuals in Yemen.
"There must be an immediate investigation into the dozens of deaths of local residents in the Abyan air strike, including into the extent of US involvement," Luther said. "Those responsible for unlawful killings must be brought to justice."
US Attorney General Eric Holder said WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is currently under investigation and would be pursued if he were found to have broken the law.
Republican Congressman Peter King, the incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, went so far as to say that the website should be deemed a "foreign terrorist organization."
Rep. King's call for prosecution was echoed by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Clair McCaskill (D-MO) and former State Department official Liz Cheney.
"We're deeply skeptical that prosecuting WikiLeaks would be constitutional, or a good idea," Hina Shamsi, Director of the ACLU National Security Project, said. "The courts have made clear that the First Amendment protects independent third parties who publish classified information. Prosecuting WikiLeaks would be no different from prosecuting the media outlets that also published classified documents."
"Prosecuting publishers of classified information threatens investigative journalism that is necessary to an informed public debate about government conduct, and that is an unthinkable outcome."