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Image: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh
Mahmud Turkia  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh attends an Arab-African joint summit in the Libyan coastal city of Sirte on Oct. 10, 2010.
By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 11/30/2010 8:20:54 AM ET 2010-11-30T13:20:54

The U.S. media paid scant attention in June when Amnesty International released a report charging that U.S. cruise missiles carrying cluster bombs had struck the village of al Majalah in southern Yemen on Dec. 17, 2009, killing 41 civilians, including 14 women and 21 children. 

Pentagon officials declined to discuss the matter at the time. But accusations of direct U.S. participation in that bombing and others in Yemen that reportedly caused civilian casualties quickly became a principal theme of al-Qaida propaganda.

That theme is now likely to get even more traction as a result of the disclosure by WikiLeaks of an unusually revealing State Department cable in which Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his top ministers appear to agree to cover up the extent of the U.S. military role in disputed air strikes in Yemen.

“President Saleh's comments will be translated and used over and over again by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as a recruiting and propaganda tool,” Gregory Johnsen, a leading U.S. expert on the terror organization’s Yemeni affiliate, told NBC on Monday. “His statements and those of his top ministers of deceiving and lying to the Yemeni public and parliament … fit seamlessly into a narrative that AQAP has been peddling in Yemen for years. This is something AQAP will take immediate and lasting advantage of.”

As Johnsen’s comments suggest, the  Jan. 4, 2010, cable recounting a meeting between U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. Central Command, and Saleh and his top ministers may well be among the most significant of the scores of documents that have been made public by WikiLeaks so far.

Not only are the full contents of the cable likely to weaken Saleh politically, the document seems to confirm what the U.S. government has never officially acknowledged: that it is deeply involved in prosecuting a military campaign against al-Qaida in a region thousands of miles away from the battlefields in Afghanistan.

In the cable, Saleh told Petraeus that “mistakes were made” during the Dec. 17 strike and another one on Dec. 24 (which was initially, and wrongly, reported to have killed radical U.S.-born imam Anwar Al-Awlaki), specifically referring to the “killing of civilians” in Yemen’s southern Abyan province. He also complained later in the meeting that U.S. cruise missiles are “not very accurate.”

While Petraeus dismissed the notion that innocents were killed (he insisted the only civilians killed were “the wife and two children” of an al-Qaida operative), he later proposed “to move away from the use of cruise missiles and instead have U.S. fixed wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory, ‘out of sight,’ and engage AQAP targets when actionable intelligence became available.”

“We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh said, according to the cable. This prompted Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al–Alimi “to joke that he had just ‘lied’ by telling parliament that the bombs in Ahrab, Abyan and Shebwa (provinces) were American-made but deployed by the ROYG (Republic of Yemen Government.)”

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The casual disclosure that the Yemenis had “lied” about the U.S. role in the air strikes might be dismissed as typical of the kind of diplomatic deceptions that are necessary in an especially volatile portion of the Mideast.

But there is more to the back story of the Dec. 17 strike. It provoked a domestic uproar inside Yemen, spurred a parliamentary inquiry and prompted Amnesty International to send its own team to investigate on the ground. The group’s investigators concluded that the air strike, while killing 14 suspected militants, had largely killed women and children; the Amnesty team also came back with photographs that it said showed the wreckage of a U.S. made Tomahawk cruise missile and portions of unexposed cluster bombs — munitions that have sparked international attempts to ban their use because of their indiscriminate impact. Amnesty also noted in its report that when Yemeni parliamentary investigators arrived in the village of al-Majalah, they “found that all the homes and their contents were burnt and all that was left were traces of furniture.”

“The fact that so many of the victims were actually women and children indicates that the attack was in fact grossly irresponsible, particularly given the likely use of cluster munitions,” said Philip Luther, deputy director of Amnesty’s International Middle East and North Africa Program.

Just as unnoticed in the U.S. media was the degree to which images from the Dec. 17 strike in al-Majalah and the account of civilian casualties were used by al-Qaida. An al-Qaida video from last spring flashed images of civilians burned and mutilated in the attack and talked about how a U.S. cruise missile “poured its lava over al-Majalah Village” and scorched the bodies of women who were "baking bread for breakfast" in their homes.

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On Monday, in the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosure, an Amnesty International spokeswoman said the organization plans to renew its call for a U.S. investigation of the Dec. 17 air strike — a request that went unanswered when it released its report in June.

“It’s fair to say that this leak kind of confirms what we were saying in our report,” said Sharon Singh, adding that both the Yemeni and the American public deserve to know the full truth about the air strike.

But so far, at least, the Pentagon isn’t talking. Asked whether U.S. cruise missiles are being used in air strikes in Yemen, Pentagon spokesman David Lapan said: "We work with the government of Yemen as well as others in the region to counter the threat of terrorism in the region." But,  he added, "we don't discuss the nature of our operations."

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Photos: Yemen in the spotlight

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  1. Yemen’s profile rose dramatically following a cargo bomb plot on two planes bound for the United States on October 29, 2010. The parcels were intercepted by Dubai and Britain, and several days later the Yemen-based group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility. The Muslim nation has increasingly gained a reputation as a safe haven for Islamic extremists. Here, a Muezzin, who calls Muslims to prayer five times a day, looks out from the Jalalya mosque in Ibb. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A weapons seller sits in his improvised shop at a truck stop in Al Adwass, offering both second-hand and new Kalashnikov assault rifles. Yemen has approximately 60 million weapons in circulation. There were no regulations in place for arms in the country until 2002 for the capital, San’a, and 2008 for the rest of the country. Yemen is struggling to implement any new arms regulations as it tries to end a civil war in the north that has raged on and off since 2004, as well as a separatist rebellion in the south. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A military checkpoint at an entry to San’a. Yemen has beefed up security and increased the number of checkpoints and random searches in an effort to crack down on Islamic militants. In December 2009, Yemen’s AQAP claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day airliner attack, raising alarms in the international community. Yemen declared open war on al-Qaida in January 2010. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. An intelligence officer checks passengers in a passing car against the pictures of two wanted al-Qaida operatives, Abdallah Salem Dahim Al Elyani Al Kahtani (l) and Abdallah Abul Karim Ibrahim Al Saloum (r). AQAP also claimed responsibility for the September 2010 crash of a UPS plane in Dubai in which two crew members died, but the U.A.E. said there was no evidence of an explosive device aboard the jet. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Qat market in the Old City in the capital, San’a. The leafy narcotic plant is a mild stimulant and is grown throughout the country. It is a widely practiced tradition to chew the leaves in the afternoon, though the convention hampers productivity in an already suffering economy.

    Photojournalist's view: Yemen is a complicated puzzle (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Yemen began a trial in absentia of U.S.-born Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki on November 4, 2010. Awlaki has ties to AQAP and is reportedly in hiding in Yemen. He released a video on November 8, 2010, calling on Muslims to kill Americans and members of any collaborating Arab governments. Here, a woman wearing a veil with the traditional pattern of San’a walks down a street in the Old City. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Followers of Sheikh Abdulmajeed al-Zindani wait for him to speak in the Mashaad mosque in San’a. Yemen's council of clerics has called for jihad, or holy war, in the event of a foreign military intervention amid speculation the United States might pursue al-Qaida extremists there. The clerics, including the radical Sheikh Abdulmajeed al-Zindani, who is labeled by the U.S. as a "global terrorist", also voiced "rejection to any security or military agreement or cooperation [between Yemen and] any foreign party if it violates Islamic Sharia [law]." (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Extremists destroyed the house of Abdulmalik al-Mansour in the al-Hasaba neighborhood in the capital on April 16, 2009. Al-Mansour was accused of tearing up and stepping on a Quran in a mosque a few months after the establishment of the “Vice and Virtue Committee.” The attackers justified their actions by saying they were protecting the holy book of Islam. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Central Security Service members train in the outskirts of San’a. CSS forces are at the helm of the fight against al-Qaida in Yemen, and their commander, Yahya Saleh, is the nephew of Yemen’s President Ali Abdallah Saleh. This particular unit was involved in the last two operations against al-Qaida in Al Ahrb, north of San’a. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. President Ali Abdallah Saleh won the country’s first-ever presidential election in 1999 by a landslide, with 96 percent of the vote. The main opposition party, however, was not allowed to put forward a candidate. Here, portraits of leaders in the Middle East hang on the walls of a barber shop in San’a’s Old City. From left to right: Sheikh Yassin, founder of the Palestinian group Hamas; Khaled Mechaal, Hamas’ leader in exile in Syria; Saddam Hussein, former president of Iraq; Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite group Hezbollah in Lebanon; and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A man walks to one of San’a’s 30 wells to look for drinking water. In the background, construction continues on a mosque that President Saleh is building as a legacy to his presidency. The country’s water resources are drying up rapidly – the water crisis is deemed among the worst in the world and is aggravated by excessive irrigation by farmers growing Qat. A few years ago, water could be found at a depth of 70-100 meters; now it is necessary to dig 450 meters into the ground to find the precious resource. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Men sit idle in the Old City of San’a near Bab Al Yemen, waiting for work. Unemployment is on the rise and there are fears it could drive more people into religious extremism. The cash-strapped government is almost powerless to meet the needs of an expanding population and if it cannot pay public sector wages, Yemen is at risk of descending into chaos. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. An armed tribesman in the restive province of Marib, east of San’a. The city of Marib has been a hotbed for extremists and insurgents returning from jihad missions overseas. In 2002, a U.S. predator drone killed several al-Qaida operatives here. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Women in the back of a pick-up truck return from working in fields along the coastal plain of Tihama on the Red Sea. Almost a third of Yemen’s workforce is out of a job and more than 40 percent of the country’s 23 million people live on less than $2 a day. For women, a lack of education lessens the already low chances of working for a living. The female literacy rate is 35 percent compared to 73 percent for men, according to World Bank figures from 2005. Also, there is no law in Yemen that states how old a woman must be to get married, which has led to child marriages and complications in childbirth for young women who have barely reached puberty when they become pregnant. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lack of electricity is widespread and regular power outages slow down businesses and development in Yemen, which is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. Here, a man holds a block of ice in the desert area of the coastal Tihama plain. Without electricity, local populations have maintained age-old methods of preserving food. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Yemeni men listen to music while chewing Qat and looking out at the view of the Tihama coastal plain from a mountain ledge near Al Mahweet. Yemen is near the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption index, ranking 154 out of 180 countries last year. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Most of what used to be North Yemen is located in the only mountain range in the Arabian Peninsula, the Hijaz Mountains. North and South Yemen formally united in 1990 but some in the south, home to most of the country’s oil facilities, complain that the historically more wealthy northerners used unification as an excuse to seize resources in the south. Southerners say the government deprives them of jobs and many believe they were better off before unification, when South Yemen was part of the socialist bloc and welfare state established with Soviet aid. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Men wearing traditional dress stand on a path through cactus trees. Most of the villages in the countryside are made of local stone and surrounded by natural vegetation, making it difficult to distinguish them from the surrounding wilderness. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. The House of the Rock, or Dar al-Hajar, in Wadi Dhar was the winter residence of Imam Yahya, who ruled Yemen from 1918 until 1948. The palace was built atop a massive rock in the 1930s and has become a cultural symbol of Yemen. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Fishermen walk along a beach in Bir Ali, a village on the Arabian Sea coast in the Shbwa province. Most of the fish is exported to Japan, but it is a vital resource for people living along the Arabian Sea coast. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: WikiLeaks exposes U.S.’s overseas secrets

  1. Closed captioning of: WikiLeaks exposes U.S.’s overseas secrets

    >>> release of classified documents from wikileaks .

    >> reporter: this is the third and by far the biggest release of u.s. secrets by wikileaks . u.s. officials say some of these leaks pose a serious threat to national security . but almost all are stunningly embarrassing. it seems that no one is spared in these cables obtained by wikileaks . the personal critiques by u.s. diplomats almost read like a teenag teenager's tweets. thin skinned like an emperor with no clothes. libya's home mar gadhafi, strange. a it's not going pretty in many cases.

    >> other cables provided in advance to a number of media outlets reveal the secrets of u.s. operations overseas. efforts in yemen -- one cable in january says yemen told david petraeus we'll continue saying the bombs are ours not yours. and in an effort to get pakistan to hand over enriched uranium from these reactors, it ultimately failed to pakistan was afraid it would be portrayed a as the united states taking pack can's nuclear weapons.

    >> reporter: this could shake governments, it could end programs, and it could seriously imperil u.s. foreign policy .

    >> but one of the most embarrassing revelations may involve the u.s. state department . hillary clinton and condoleezza rice ordered intelligence services to gather intelligence on -- the prime suspect in these massive leaks remains pfc bradley manning who remains in military custody, charged with downloading thousands of state department documents, many of which reportedly appear in this latest wikileaks release. now on the heels of this latest dump of u.s. secrets, some members of congress are calling on the obama administration to try to actually shut down wikileaks and charge wick i can leak's operators with espionage. that's highly unlikely. so instead the state department and the pentagon are looking for ways to tighten up their security to try to prevent such massive leaks in the future.

    >> reporter:

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