US intelligence leaks on Manchester threaten cooperation with allies

WASHINGTON — The vital intelligence-sharing relationship between the U.S. and Britain was dealt a serious setback after U.K. authorities learned that sensitive information had been leaked to U.S. media regarding the May 22 Manchester Arena attack, which killed 23 and injured 120.

Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham posted a partial statement on his Twitter page Thursday saying the leaking of the information is “wrong, it’s arrogant and totally disrespectful to the people of Manchester.”

“It worries me greatly, and in fact I made known my concerns about it to the U.S. ambassador. It’s not acceptable to me,” Burnham told BBC News Wednesday night. “Here, there’s a live investigation taking place, and we cannot have information being put in the public domain that’s not in the direct control of the British police and security services.”

Initially annoyed by the leaking of the name of the Manchester suicide bomber, British investigators were incensed when pictures of the disintegrated bomb appeared in The New York Times.

“To have information put in the public domain before it was put there by people here is just wrong,” said Burnham.

The firestorm created by the disclosures prompted unconfirmed reports that British authorities had stopped sharing intelligence with the U.S. But it was determined late Thursday that the halt in sharing may only apply to information coming from Greater Manchester Police.

A valued partner

But despite the rift and threat to shut down sharing because of the indiscretion, the U.S. intelligence community remains a valued and indispensable partner to the U.K. and the European Union more generally.

“We have an incredibly strong bilateral relationship with the United Kingdom, specifically; and with many other European nations in general,” a senior U.S. counterterrorism official told WTOP. “It includes a number of different ongoing high-level fora, and ongoing, operational day-to-day situations with people sitting together working counterterrorism and other issues.”

The official said that when an event like the attack in Manchester occurs, the existing and close relationship “makes it very easy for us to rapidly share information on the extremely specific investigative level and then also more generally.”

The Senior U.S. official said there is broad cooperation in Europe, much of it running through Europol’s counterterrorism, migrant smuggling and cybercrime centers.

“Through these centers, we’re able to work on a very detailed and ongoing basis around specific networks, specific problem sets and specific actual criminal terrorism or terrorism-related activities.”

European officials with knowledge of the relationship said the U.S. intelligence community’s ability to follow terrorist money links is one of its most attractive assets.

Victor Negrescu, EU member of Parliament from Romania, talked to WTOP while visiting Washington on May 23.

“Investigating where the money comes from to support terrorist attacks is something that we haven’t done well, and we haven’t searched for the people that financed these attacks,” he said. “But together with the U.S., we can do that because you have the knowledge, the information, the capacity and you have the experience in fighting against terrorism.”

However, the incentive, he pointed out, extends beyond simply being a good friend to the EU. There is a practical reason.

“A terrorist attack committed in Manchester or Sweden, Brussels or Paris doesn’t only reach French, British, Swedish or Belgian citizens. It touches everyone. And you could have an American citizen who goes to a concert in Manchester, who becomes a victim of the attack,” said Negrescu.

Collaboration yields deep insight

The senior U.S. counterterrorism official said the multifaceted collaboration provides deep insight that can quickly penetrate difficult terrorism problems.

“The multicountry and multidisciplined effort brought to bear against a problem set — where you have border officials, intelligence and law enforcement officials looking at a multilayered problem — often gives you potential insight into how that problem works and gives you greater ability to attack it,” said the official.

The latest leaking episode revived memories of a similar incident after the July 7, 2005, transit terror attack in London that killed 52 people.

Ian Blair, chief of London’s Metropolitan Police Service at the time, told British media on Thursday that the situation “reminds me exactly of what happened after 7/7 when the United States published a complete picture of the way the bomb in 7/7 had been made up.”

A part of the reason for the deep concern over the leaks in Britain is that authorities are desperately trying to shut down what Greater Manchester Police Chief Constable Ian Hopkins has called a “network” that’s believed to have direct links to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

“The alleged leaks coming out of government agencies are deeply troubling,” President Donald Trump said in a statement.

He said his administration will get to the bottom of the leaks, which he said pose a “grave threat” to U.S. national security.

“I am asking the Department of Justice and other relevant agencies to launch a complete review of this matter, and if appropriate, the culprit should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said Trump.

“There is no relationship we cherish more than the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom,” he said.

Information “must be secure”

British officials confirm that Prime Minister Theresa May raised the issue with Trump at the NATO Summit in Brussels.

Responding to a question about the future of British/U.S. intelligence sharing, a British Embassy spokesperson in Washington said in a statement, “Information shared between our law enforcement agencies must be secure, and we are pleased that U.S. authorities have launched an investigation into breaches of this principle around the Manchester attack investigation.”

The statement also indicated that despite the anger over the leaks, the relationship remains intact.

“On intelligence sharing, the U.S. is our closest and most trusted partner,” said the statement. “We share significant amounts of information with them and will continue to work closely on the full range of intelligence and national security issues. Both our countries benefit enormously from such cooperation.”

Scotland Yard also confirmed its commitment to sharing intelligence with the U.S.

“While we do not usually comment on information sharing arrangements … having received fresh assurances, we are now working closely with our key partners around the world including all those in the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance,” said Mark Rowley, Britain’s lead officer for counterterrorism policing.

Several other key U.S. allies WTOP contacted said they don’t believe the leak will stop their sharing agreements with the U.S. But some did express profound concern about what one official called “a pattern of leaks and disclosures from the administration.”

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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