BRUSSELS — The outrage from British officials over a series of high-profile leaks to the US media about the Manchester bombing investigation has damaged the public relationship between the two countries — but UK officials, intelligence experts, and European security officials say it’s unlikely to have a major effect on intelligence cooperation.
Although several reports in the UK media said that the Manchester police had stopped sharing information with the Americans in protest, two senior British officials, who each spoke on the condition that they remain unidentified and not be directly quoted, said instead that UK police and intelligence officials are still sharing critical information with their US counterparts — but with a stern warning about use and broad distribution.
Greater Manchester Police have been blindsided by information they provided to the UK intelligence agencies being released to the public, one of the officials said. The police are investigating the attack, which killed 22 people and injured scores more, alongside terror experts from Special Branch and MI5, the domestic intelligence service. In response to the uncharacteristically sustained outrage by the UK government and citizens, President Donald Trump, who was on his first foreign trip during when the attack happened, promised Thursday to open an official investigation into the leaking.
The officials said the release of crime scene photos, printed in the New York Times, and the suspect’s name, revealed by CBS News and the AP, angered local police officials unfamiliar with the perils of international cooperation, but national officials — while annoyed — expect leaks as a matter of course.
“I think it is important to remember that today's restrictions only seem to apply to law enforcement channels and not to intelligence sharing more broadly,” said Shashank Joshi, an intelligence analyst and senior fellow at RUSI, referring to the police’s decision to try and restrict information sharing. Joshi said the leaks “could make European police forces more careful about what they disseminate in the aftermath of future terrorist attacks.”
In investigations like Manchester that sprawl across multiple countries and appear to have links to the broader ISIS networks, cooperation would happen on the law enforcement level — in this case with the FBI — to help build a criminal case, and intelligence agencies would also be collaborating to track and assess the overall threat.
Glenn Carle, a former CIA officer who spent more than 20 years in clandestine field operations, told BuzzFeed News that the leaks were “shocking.”
“The Bureau leaks more than the intelligence services, yes,” Carle said. “They are a law enforcement office, have less rigorous — at least different — training in how to protect sources and methods, and always have had a closer relationship with the media than the intel services.”
Even with a cultural difference, Carle said he was appalled by the leaks in the Manchester case because as a law enforcement body, the FBI should have understood the difficulties of building a case, while also attempting to prevent future attacks.
One top police official from an EU member state that deals extensively with both countries chuckled at the two countries, both of whom are considered by EU allies to be a bit arrogant.
“It’s a pretty funny spat on the surface, because both the Americans and Brits are considered arrogant services by the small European allies and getting either to really cooperate with an investigation is almost impossible,” he said. “They’ll give you what they want to give you and leak what they’re going to leak."
“It’s true American law enforcement ‘briefs’ the media more on an ongoing investigation than maybe the British, but ask any policeman in the EU: The worst thing for an investigation is a British media circus,” he said. “Look at Madeleine [McCann] in Portugal, the Amanda Knox case in [Italy] — both of those saw massive leaks from the UK side of things that crippled local investigators.”
Ultimately, the European police official said, while irritation might persist, the UK simply can’t afford to walk away from the US’s vast technological capacity to gather and sort criminal investigation data.
“It would really infuriate me as an investigator to see the names of my suspects leaked along with crime scene photos in a foreign newspaper,” he said. “I’d demand apologies and assurances but I don’t want to look for a bomb-maker on the loose in Europe or the UK without the technological assistance of the Americans. It’s just too vast an apparatus to ignore even if you’re annoyed.”
An EU Counter Terrorism official in Brussels echoed this assessment but also pointed to the UK’s fears of increasing irrelevance in an era of Brexit and continued budget cuts to its own military and intelligence services.
“You know what the Americans will bring in terms of assistance: billions of dollars of resources and technology,” the official said. “And normally it’s fine but in a situation like this where terrorism situation is underway, things get deeply politicized and that can lead to leaks. The Brits knew the risk and have no choice: You can’t cut out the American help because it’s all just too vast and embedded in your own systems when you’re a member of the Five Eyes,” the official said, referring to an intelligence sharing agreement between the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand.
“Part of the issue is British insecurity: It drives them crazy they’re reliant on the US for so much technical support but they can’t afford to do it alone, so they worry the Americans don’t respect them. The leaks intensify this feeling, which I suspect is the root of much of the anger.”
With additional reporting by John Hudson.