US officials leak fresh Manchester bombing details hours after UK rebuke
Steady drip of details from the US and France hampers British police investigation
An armed soldier and an armed police officer patrol outside the Houses of Parliament on May 24th, 2017 in London. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images
US officials disclosed fresh details of the investigation into the Manchester bombing to journalists within hours of British home secretary Amber Rudd warning them to stop the leaking.
The steady drip of details from the US – as well as from France – is hampering the investigation by British police, who are trying to control the release of information for operational reasons.
The home secretary reflected the frustration and dismay of the UK security services in a series of morning interviews. She described the leaks as irritating and said she had made it clear to the US that it should not happen again.
But within hours, US reporter Richard Engel, of NBC, tweeted details not released by the UK. Engel said US intelligence officers told him family members of the killer, Salman Abedi, had warned UK security officials about him and had described him as dangerous.
Engel also reported that US intelligence officials said Abedi had a bank card in his pocket showing his name, and his identity had been confirmed by facial recognition. He added that Abedi probably had help in making a “big and sophisticated bomb”.
The intelligence community has long been uncomfortable about revelations from its recent past made in books and articles. But the release of details of a live investigation on the scale of those by the US and France is a relatively new phenomenon.
The leak of the British information, as well as demonstrating a lack of respect for a US ally at an emotional time, will have hindered the investigation, where it is essential to control the release of details.
UK counter-terrorism specialists said this week they needed to keep the name of a perpetrator or suspect secret for at least 36 hours to ensure there was an element of surprise in approaching relatives, friends and others.
But US officials in Washington briefed US journalists early on Tuesday about the number of dead, that it was a suicide bombing and – only hours later – the name of the killer. The UK had not been planning to release the name on Tuesday.
The UK’s reluctance to identify the assailant was evident because it took hours after his name was circulating in the US media before Greater Manchester police confirmed it.
Rudd said: “The British police have been very clear that 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 and I have been very clear with our friends that should not happen again.”
Although her language was mild, it is rare for a UK politician to issue such a rebuke to the Americans.
Adding an image of western security services as unco-ordinated and amateurish, the French interior minister, Gerard Collomb, then told French television on Wednesday that Abedi had been in Libya and possibly Syria, information UK police had not disclosed.
Asked about the French leak, Rudd said: “We need to let the operation continue and for the intelligence services and the police to make what investigations they can. Any new information is of course welcome for them, but I’m not going to comment any further on the actual operation.”
UK security professionals are almost certainly appalled by what has happened, as will be their counterparts in the US and France.
Anger about the extent of the leaks is not confined to the UK. Senior members of the US Congress also expressed concern.
The top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Adam Schiff, said he did not know the source but insisted it was not from Congress, as members and their staffs had not been briefed.
Schiff, who is a driving force behind the congressional investigation into the Trump campaign’s links with Russia, said: “We should have been very careful and respectful of the British investigation and the timing which the British felt was in their investigative interests in releasing that. That should have been their discretion not ours. If that is something we did, I think that’s a real problem.”
The UK intelligence agencies, he said, would have passed on information about the bomber and possible associates to see if the US had any further intelligence on them.
“If we gave up information that has interfered in any way with their investigation because it tipped off people in Britain, perhaps associates of this person that we had identified as the bomber, that’s a real problem and they have every right to be furious.”
Schiff said he thought US-UK intelligence-sharing would withstand the incident, but over the long term the effect of leaks was likely to damage intelligence sharing with US allies.
Chris Coons, a Democratic member of the Senate foreign affairs committee, said questions were being raised about whether the Trump administration understood what it meant to treat highly classified intelligence responsibly.
He told MSNBC: “Our alliance with the people of Great Britain is one of our closest, strongest, oldest – and our prayers are with them, the families who lost loved ones in Manchester. We’ve got a very close intelligence and defence partnership with the UK and that news is troubling and it suggests that we have even more close allies who are questioning whether we can be trusted with vital intelligence.
“This is a key part of what keeps us safe, a global network of allies with whom we share intelligence and strategic and planning and defence resources. I am hearing real questions raised about whether this administration, in particular President Trump, understands what it means to treat highly classified intelligence carefully and responsibly.”
There are good reasons why the security services want to control the flow of information. They do not want to reveal the extent of what they know to those they are looking for – or how they gain that information.
On a practical level, the police would have preferred more time to search Abedi’s home and speak to neighbours without the media descending on the area.
One of the basic tenets of intelligence sharing is that other agencies do not disclose it. The problem is that those intelligence agencies, whether American or French, pass it up to their presidents, prime ministers and departmental ministers. In the past, that secrecy was respected.
After the leaks, it could be tempting for UK police and intelligence services to stop sharing some sensitive information. But Britain relies heavily on the US sharing its intelligence and benefits from intelligence, especially on counter-terrorism, from European colleagues such as France and Germany.