Network Take: How Damaging Are Manchester Leaks to U.S.-UK Relations?

Photo: iStock/com/GoldStock

Diplomatic tensions over leaks to the U.S. media about the Manchester terror attack, culminated Thursday with U.S. President Donald Trump calling for the Department of Justice “to launch a complete review of this matter.”

In a statement, Trump called the leaks “deeply troubling,” adding that “if appropriate, the culprit should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

His comments came after The New York Times published forensic photos from the scene of Monday’s explosion, where Salman Abedi blew himself up, killing at least 22 people. According to the BBC, UK officials believe U.S. law enforcement gave the photos to the Times.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said she intended to address the issue with Trump, when the two leaders met at a NATO summit on Thursday.

“I will make clear to President Trump that intelligence that is shared between our law enforcement agencies must remain secure,” she said in a televised statement.

Earlier, British Home Secretary Amber Rudd said in a BBC interview that she was irritated with the U.S. media for releasing information about the Manchester bomber before British police would have liked.

Rudd said British investigators wanted to control the flow of information to “keep the element of surprise.”

The New York Times photos outraged British government officials, with Greater Manchester Police saying they would stop sharing information about the investigation with the U.S.

Britain and the United States – along with Australia, Canada, New Zealand – are part of the “Five Eyes” alliance, a group of countries which share valuable intelligence information.

And while President Trump stressed “there is no relationship we cherish more than the special relationship between the US and the UK,” could this row over the leaks change that? The Cipher Brief asked some of its Network experts.

The Cipher Brief: How detrimental to an investigation would the leaks of information and photos be?

Michael Leiter, Former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC): This is a very serious issue. Of course, because of the strength of the U.S.-UK relationship, they will keep sharing and cooperation between them will be relatively healthy. But these sorts of leaks are inexcusable and will affect the more sensitive sharing of operational and investigative details.

The U.S. counterterrorism community relies heavily on this sharing not just to support our UK partners but also because — at least during my time at NCTC — we viewed any threat that was in the UK, as a potential threat to the U.S. Homeland. Networks exist; there are countless direct flights, and it isn’t safe to assume a UK threat will stay there. Think about the threat in 2006 to down airliners coming from the UK to the U.S. Losing or slowing the sharing of these operational details is highly problematic.

Nicholas Fishwick, former senior member of British Foreign Service: The best people to comment on this are the British police who have said that this kind of disclosure could be detrimental to their investigation. One can imagine all sorts of ways in which it would be detrimental, for example through warning the network that supported the bomber, which the police will be chasing now. It’s giving your game plan to the opposition. But more important is the effect on the British public. There is a huge amount of emotion here right now, and there will be for the foreseeable future, so any action that causes distress to the grieving families has to be strongly condemned. And these leaks have caused the most terrible distress.

Mitch Silber, former Director of Intelligence Analysis, New York Police Department: If Manchester officials and the UK are holding back information from the U.S., it’s hurtful in at least two different ways. First, it’s harmful that the U.S. won’t know potentially critical information that could impact the disruption of linked plots that are relevant to the U.S. There may be networks or connections to people in the U.S. who are linked to the network in Manchester. In fact, in 2009, that was exactly the case. The 2009 Manchester plot was directly connected to the 2009 New York City Subway plot headed by Najibullah Zazi. So, by virtue of the British sharing information about the Manchester plot, the U.S. was able to stop the Zazi 2009 subway plot. So, it’s detrimental to the U.S.

It’s also detrimental to the UK itself because there is some likelihood that the U.S. may have some data that would shine additional light on co-conspirators to the Manchester plot who may have come up on U.S. intelligence radar in some other part of the world. It would be possible that the U.S. has information that could be helpful for this, but if it’s not shared with the U.S. to begin with, the U.S. can’t reciprocate.

TCB: Would it change the pace of the investigation in Manchester?

Leiter: Undoubtedly, the leaks affect the British investigation: the pace at which it might proceed, the steps they might take. In effect, it narrows their flexibility. In this light, imagine how furious we would be if the shoe was on the other foot.

Fishwick: That’s really a question for the police, but if they say leaks hamper their investigation, then hampering means both delaying and possibly messing parts of it up.

TCB: Describe how the UK and US counterterror/counter-intelligence share information on an investigation like this?  

Leiter: Investigative details should be shared (and perhaps were) along very narrow channels with the key operational partners: FBI, NSA, CIA, and a few key analysts in a place like NCTC.  These leaks will only make that sharing even more narrow, which will, in turn, hurt our ability in the U.S. to potentially find more distant connections.

Fishwick: I haven’t seen any suggestion of leaks by the U.S. intelligence agencies so of course relationships between U.S. and U.K. intelligence remain rock solid. As is well known, the U.K. and U.S. intelligence agencies have extremely close relations, cooperating very closely on operations and on the sharing of intelligence regarding counterterrorism and many other matters across the globe. This cooperation is vital to British national security and will not be affected by these leaks.

Silber: Not only are the U.S. and the UK two members of the Five Eyes, along with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – who share intelligence information tremendously closely – but particularly, the U.S.-UK bilateral relationship is the closest and most intimate as there is agency to agency cooperation, cross-agency cooperation, and personnel sitting with members of the other country’s intelligence agencies. It is generally seamless. So, the idea that there would be some type of impediments put up in between U.S.-UK intelligence sharing is shocking and tremendously dangerous.

TCB: Where could the leaks have occurred? Has it happened before?  

Leiter: I can’t speculate from where these leaks emanated, but I will say that the pace and scale of the leaks of key operational detail is pretty extreme, if not unprecedented. We always understood the sensitivity of this sort of information, and we had numerous conversations with our British counterparts about both the advantage of sharing and our commitment to protecting their information. I’m sure there are a lot of uncomfortable phone calls from Washington to London with seniors who have their tail between their legs.

Fishwick: Where the leaks occurred will be for the U.S. to ascertain. It’s good news that President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have responded quickly and seriously to the concerns that our Prime Minister has articulated, and that the leaks will be investigated, and one hopes, no more will happen. There have been alleged leaks before on both sides, and each has a responsibility to honor its obligations about the handling of sensitive information. A close relationship, not just in the government intelligence world, depends on that.

Silber: I don’t know where the leaks have occurred, but I do remember after the July 7, 2005 Tube and bus bombings in London, there was a leak in the U.S. about the type of explosive that the terrorists had used. It was a very bad situation because the British felt sensitive information that they had shared with the U.S. had gotten into the public domain. This type of thing has happened before inadvertently, but it’s never a good thing when that information is leaked and gets into the public domain.

TCB: The UK and US share a strong bond, particularly through the Five Eyes alliance. But is it unusual for British police to stop sharing information, specifically about the Manchester attack with their U.S. security counterparts?

Leiter: I would be a bit surprised if this is really a full and continuing stop, as opposed to a pause and then a careful restart of sharing. More than this, would be both unusual and highly worrisome.  

Fishwick: If reports are true I think it is unusual, yes, but one needs to put this in perspective. There is a lot of emotion around here. Relatives and friends in Manchester are grieving. People across the country, of all religions and of no religion, are shocked and angry. So, leaks like this will cause great pain and a very strong reaction. In practice, I think that cooperation between UK and U.S. law enforcement will remain as strong as ever, because it’s precisely that cooperation that has kept us safe over the years and has sent some evil people to jail.

TCB: President Trump has ordered a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation to launch an investigation into the matter. Is this necessary?

Leiter: I think it is necessary that we get a handle on the leaking of such sensitive and important information, in the midst a major counterterrorism investigation, that involves one of our closest partners and several other countries. Law enforcement investigations and intelligence operations can’t occur with this sieve-like environment. So yes, I think it is very good that the President and others take this seriously and make it crystal clear to our partners that we will do all we can to secure their information.

Fishwick: Not for the British to comment on exactly what the President has ordered, but I think we were looking for a sign that he was taking our concern seriously, and from here, that’s indeed what his response looks like.

Silber: I don’t know if DOJ is actually necessary for this. The agencies should be able to police themselves. But if not, then I guess DOJ is the next place to go.

TCB: Should we consider this incident some sort of blip or could this lead to something more consequential?

Silber: I hope this is a just a small bump in the relationship, given the history and strength and multifaceted nature of the relationship. We’ll have to see, but I hope it’s just a blip.