A rift between the Trump administration and US security services contributed to a series of leaks by American officials about the Manchester bombing, British officials believe.
UK agrees to resume sharing intelligence with US after assurances – as it happened
Theresa May had confronted Donald Trump over repeated leaks to US media of information related to the Manchester bombing
Although Donald Trump ordered the justice department on Thursday to conduct a review of the US handling of sensitive material relating to the Manchester investigation, UK officials blame a culture of leaks on the breakdown of normal discipline at the White House and in the US security services.
Concern is not confined to the UK. “A lot of allies are concerned about the leaks coming out of not just the senior level but also the lower echelons of the intelligence community,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, a senior national security official in the Obama administration. “If I was running the intelligence agency of an ally I would take a hard look [at] what intelligence we would be sharing right now.”
Greater Manchester police temporarily suspended the sharing of information with US counterparts as a result of the leaks. The suspension, which lasted less than 24 hours, raisedthe risk of vital information about terrorists not being passed on and the UK being denied access to specialist US input.
British police had been feeding information about the investigation into a central database to which law enforcement agencies in the US, such as the FBI, had access. US specialists on counter-terrorism, forensic analysis, bomb making and other areas, can see the information.
Jeffrey Ringel, a former counter-terrorism special agent in the FBI, said daily intelligence sharing with British and other foreign law enforcement agencies had been central to his job.
“The sharing of information among people who need to know is absolutely vital,” said Ringel, who now works at the Soufan Group security consultancy. “A bomb technology expert can look at a picture of a fragment and can immediately identify it. There are a group of law enforcement and military experts who keep a library of all kinds of bombs from around the world. There will be an expert who will say ‘I know that, I have seen that before’, and they will push that information to an active investigation.”
Ringel said the UK government and other allies might now impose restrictions on the sharing of sensitive intelligence, slowing down its circulation. In that way, he said, it was possible for the intelligence leaks to do permanent damage.
“This is the sort of thing that will ruin the cooperation and trust that is built up over years and years. That is hard to rebuild,” he said.
The intelligence-sharing relationship between the UK and the US has been one of the closest in the world over the last 60 years, the links becoming stronger after the 9/11 attacks in the US.
The row comes only months after the “special relationship” between the UK and US was tested when the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, repeated an allegation that the UK surveillance agency GCHQ had been involved in an alleged bugging of Trump. The secretive GCHQ issued a rare public statement describing the allegation as “utterly ridiculous”.
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The latest row concerns the disclosure of the identity of the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, by the US media on Tuesday, and publication on the New York Times website the next day of photographs of the remnants of the bomb.
American journalists traditionally have a more open relationship with the police and intelligence services than their counterparts in the UK. The police in Manchester and the British government aimed their anger not at the journalists, who were just working their sources, but the US officials supplying the information, claiming the premature release of the name hampered the investigation.
The New York Times revelations appeared a day after the home secretary, Amber Rudd, had called her counterpart, the secretary of homeland security, John Kelly, to ask for the leaks to stop.
It was unclear in London how much impact the request to Kelly would have. In the Trump administration so far there is little coordination between departments due to the weakness of the national security council, and Kelly is not a strong presence in the Trump circle. But even given those low expectations, the appearance of the published Manchester photographs came as a shock to British officials.
The suspension of cooperation between the UK and US law enforcement agencies does not apply to MI6, which deals with spying overseas; MI5, which deals with domestic issues; or GCHQ. The relationship between the three agencies and their US counterparts is extremely close.
The Manchester leaks came soon after Trump shared top-secret intelligence, apparently provided by Israel, in a White House meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak.
On Wednesday the president is reported to have disclosed the location of two US nuclear submarines to the Philippines leader, Rodrigo Duterte. Meanwhile, leaks about the investigation into the links of the Trump camp to the Kremlin are an almost daily occurrence.