The UK police forces investigating the Manchester attack have stopped sharing intelligence with their US counterparts, after a series of leaks. Key information that the British police were not yet ready to release to the public ended up broadcast in the American media, including the name of the suspect, Salman Abedi. Yesterday, home secretary Amber Rudd gave an interview in which she expressed – in an unusually blunt but extremely British way – that she found the leaks “irritating”, and said she had made it clear to Washington that “it should not happen again”.
And then it did. After Rudd’s interview, the New York Times published images of the aftermath of the attack that seem to show the bomber’s backpack and debris from the device, as well as a detailed map of the crime scene and information about how the bomb worked. This has caused “disbelief and astonishment”, according to a Whitehall source. Manchester mayor Andy Burnham called the leaks “arrogant, wrong and distrustful”, while the UK’s National Police Chiefs’ Council released a statement saying:
“When that trust is breached, it undermines these relationships, and undermines our investigations and the confidence of victims, witnesses and their families. This damage is even greater when it involves unauthorised disclosure of potential evidence in the middle of a major counter-terrorism investigation.”
This is crucial, because the premature publication of the information may have given associates of the suspect time to prepare and flee or destroy evidence before police could get to them. It seems fairly basic that, in an ongoing investigation, you don’t want to release anything that could help the perpetrators and get in the way of police efforts to prevent this kind of atrocity happening again.
The police and the British government are “furious”. As well they should be. This kind of betrayal breaks every rule in the book of intelligence sharing, and the fact that it happened not once but twice reeks of carelessness on the American side. Complaints have been made to the US ambassador in London, and Theresa May is expected to voice her displeasure (to put it mildly) to President Donald Trump at the NATO meeting in Brussels later today. So far there has been no public statement from US authorities.
Do not underestimate the significance of this incident, not only for the brave police and intelligence forces whose investigation into the network behind the Manchester attack may have been compromised, but for the safety of the US in the future. The decision by British law enforcement to stop sharing information with the US is well-justified, but it is also extremely radical – the US and the UK are known for their close bilateral intelligence relationship, even within the “Five Eyes” alliance. For the UK to be outraged enough by America’s behaviour to revoke decades-long sharing privileges, even temporarily, shows the extent to which trust has been destroyed.
Nor is the UK alone in its recent wariness of sharing intelligence with the US. Last week, it the news broke that Trump had revealed classified information to Russian officials without the permission of the country which gathered it. On Monday, Trump accidentally let it slip – in public – that that country had been Israel, when he responded to a question at a press conference with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying “I never mentioned the word or the name ‘Israel’. Never mentioned during that conversation”. Israeli officials are, unsurprisingly, not impressed. Israeli defence chief Avigdor Liberman announced on Wednesday that his country would be changing its intelligence sharing protocols with the US, saying “we did a spot repair”. Note that there are reports that the information leak could put at risk the life of the Israeli agent who supplied it, who is thought to be embedded with a group of IS fighters.
Unlike the unauthorised sharing of the Israeli intelligence, leaks of the Manchester information seem to have come from US law enforcement, not the White House. Nonetheless, a pattern is emerging, of a US government apparatus under such strain that protocol is being breached and mistakes are being made – mistakes that could cost lives. And not only British and Israeli lives – if other countries refuse to share intel with the US, mistrustful of where it might end up, American security agencies will find the job of preventing terror attacks suddenly gets a lot harder.
If America isn’t more careful, it may find it doesn’t have many friends left.