The U.K. government has stopped all information sharing related to the Manchester bombing with U.S intelligence agencies after they continued to leak sensitive information from the attack. The decision was taken Wednesday, after images purportedly showing bomb debris appeared in The New York Times. U.K. officials are said to be furious about the leaks, and the prime minister is planning to talk directly to President Donald Trump Thursday about her concerns.
The move was first reported by the BBC, which claimed the final straw came late Wednesday evening when the Times published images taken at the scene of the explosion, including some appearing to show bloodstained fragments from the bomb and the backpack used to conceal it. The paper did not reveal where the images came from, simply saying it was “preliminary information gathered by British authorities.”
Whitehall sources speaking to the BBC said the latest leak was “on another level,” and had left officials in “disbelief and astonishment.” British Prime Minister Theresa May said Thursday she would be raising the issue with Trump at a NATO summit in Brussels.
“I will be making clear to President Trump that intelligence that is shared between our law enforcement agencies must remain secure,” May said. Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham calls the leaks “arrogant,” and said he had spoken to the U.S. ambassador to the U.K. about them.
A national counterterrorism policing spokesperson said the leaks undermined and damaged the intelligence sharing relationship between the two countries, adding: “This damage is even greater when it involves unauthorised disclosure of potential evidence in the middle of a major counter terrorism investigation.”
The emergence of images from the scene of the attack was just the latest in a string of leaks about the bombing which first surfaced in the U.S. media – the result of information from intelligence sources at American agencies.
- The identity of the attacker — 22-year old Salman Abedi — was leaked by U.S. intelligence sources to NBC and CBS within hours of the attack, long before the U.K. authorities had planned to release it publicly.
- The initial death toll from the bombing was reported by NBC before any U.K. media organizations ran it, based on information shared by a U.S. official briefed by British authorities.
- The fact that this was a suicide bombing was again reported in U.S. media before Greater Manchester Police or Downing Street had confirmed it.
U.K. Home Secretary Amber Rudd called the leaks “irritating” in an interview Wednesday. “The British police have been very clear they want to control the flow of information in order to protect operational integrity — the element of surprise. So it is irritating if it gets released from other sources,” she told the BBC.
The suspension of information sharing only relates to the Manchester attack investigation specifically, as the U.K. continues to share vast amounts of military, police, human, and signal intelligence under the agreement known as Five Eyes – which also includes Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
“This is pretty serious”
The information sharing suspension marks a significant change in approach from the U.K. government. “To get an idea of how serious this is, just look at how fast this escalated,” Patrick Bury, a former NATO analyst and lecturer in security at Cranfield University, told VICE News. “They are not sharing police-to-police information now, and the prime minister is going to speak to the president about this. That’s pretty serious.”
While the suspension of information sharing is a new departure, such leaks are not. “The disturbing thing is that it isn’t a blip, it has actually come in the wider context of a series of leaks, which have been happening at a vastly accelerated rate in the last six months or so,” Joe Devanny, an intelligence expert at the International Centre for Security Analysis and a former national security analyst for the British government, told VICE News.
Leaks are quickly becoming a major source of worry for the Trump administration. As well as the almost constant stream of leaks from within the administration to U.S. media outlets, the president himself allegedly leaked classified information shared by Israel during an Oval Office meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“The credibility of some of the agencies involved, especially the FBI, are coming into question because of these events,” Bury said.
Leaks are nothing new
Following the 2005 terror attack on the London transport network in which 52 victims were killed, U.S. media published an unseen image of an explosive used in the attack.
“I’m afraid this reminds me exactly of what happened after 7/7, when the U.S. published a complete picture of the way the bombs had been made up. We had the same protests,” Ian Blair, who was Metropolitan police commissioner at the time, told the Guardian. “It’s a different world in how the U.S. operates in the sense of how they publish things. And this is a very grievous breach but I’m afraid it’s the same as before.”
Devanny says this incident will “probably not” have a lasting impact on the intelligence sharing relationship between the U.S. and U.K. — but that is based on the assumption that similar leaks won’t happen again in the future.
“From the U.K. perspective it is a relationship that they very much want to continue, but obviously that depends on mutual trust, because that’s the basis on which highly classified information is shared,” Devanny told VICE News.
There are moves being made to improve how information is shared across the Atlantic. GlobSec is an NGO based in Slovakia that counts former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and former David Omand, the former head of GCHQ as board members.
On Friday it will publish its second report, which will lay out the benefits of establishing a permanent intelligence hub, which would provide a secure space for linking existing national counter-terrorism centres with high degrees of mutual trust.
“If intelligence agencies do not continuously innovate and adapt to meet the increasingly transnational, criminal and technologically-savvy terrorists of today, the attacks of the past three years will continue,” according to a copy of the report seen by VICE News ahead of publication.