The Manchester attack on Monday at an Ariana Grande concert, which killed 22 people and injured 59 others, has dealt a serious new blow to America’s intelligence-sharing agreement with Britain — a relationship vital to both countries’ efforts to prevent terror attacks.
During the fast-paced and high-stakes investigation into the attack, leaks of detailed information about the investigation to US media by US government officials have made British officials very angry. So angry that the Brits will no longer share sensitive information about the bombing investigation with the United States. “We quite frankly can't afford to risk it anymore," Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham told CNN.
And while the NATO meeting in Brussels today has many other items on the agenda, British Prime Minister Theresa May will almost certainly find time to make her displeasure known to President Donald Trump. When she arrived in Brussels on Thursday, May told reporters, "I will be making clear to President Trump today that intelligence that is shared between law enforcement agencies must remain secure."
Less diplomatic, UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd called the leaks “irritating” and claimed to have already told Washington that these leaks "should not happen again."
This is a remarkable development. The US-UK relationship has been sacrosanct for years, and much of it is based on the trust the two countries have sharing intelligence with one another. They even form two of the five countries in “Five Eyes,” a small club of English-speaking countries that share almost all of their intel with each other.
But now that trust is compromised — and the United States is at fault. Vital information the US could learn from the Manchester investigation will no longer flow to this side of the pond.
This comes at a time when many of America’s allies are worried Washington just can’t keep a secret, mostly because the president of the United States is giving away sensitive intelligence to autocratic regimes.
Loose lips may sink ships. But, as we’re finding out, it can also sink important friendships.
Britain is mad because America keeps revealing sensitive information — and not just about the Manchester attack
In the minds of British officials, the leaks coming out of America during the Manchester bombing investigation are “unprecedented in their scope, frequency, and potential damage,” reports the Guardian.
Their feelings are justified. US news outlets published the name of the suspected attacker, Salman Abedi, while British officials were withholding that information so as not to jeopardize police efforts to hunt down Abedi’s associates. The New York Times also published detailed photographs of fragments from the bomb used in the attack.
All of this was happening while British and Libyan authorities were conducting raids relating to the investigation.
On top of that, many US allies are worried that the US can’t hold onto sensitive information more generally because it’s leaking out of one place in particular: Trump’s own mouth.
Trump reportedly gave top Russian officials highly classified intelligence about ISIS plots that Israel had given to America with the belief that it would remain secret. (This led to a must-watch awkward encounter between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting this week).
Israel was so miffed that it changed its procedures for sharing intelligence with the United States, according to Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.
Trump also told Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte where US nuclear submarines are located in the Pacific Ocean, which a president just shouldn’t do.
“Given the circumstances, I would make the same decision” that the British did to stop sharing intelligence related to the Manchester investigation, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Vox.
And the United States has a history of leaking sensitive information during bombing investigations. As the Guardian notes, the UK stopped sharing intelligence after US media published pictures of how the bomb was made for the July 7, 2005, London attack.
In a statement, the Greater Manchester Police said, “[w]hen the trust is breached it undermines these relationships, and undermines our investigations and the confidence of victims, witnesses and their family.”
It will surely take some time — and a lot of changes at the very top — to win back Britain’s trust. In the meantime, the US is missing out receiving information that could potentially be helpful to its counterterrorism efforts down the road.
These leaks, from the White House and the media, make it harder for America to counter terrorism
Trump on Thursday ordered an investigation into the leaks in an effort to save face. In a statement, he said he found the unrestricted flow of information “deeply troubling” and promised to “get to the bottom of this.”
And in the Manchester case, Trump himself clearly isn’t the source of the leaks, so ordering this investigation makes sense. But a big reason other countries — including allies — are so freaked out about giving America important intel these days is because they’re worried that Trump will tell anyone willing to listen.
That’s a huge problem. As my colleague Zack Beauchamp explains:
US intelligence-gathering efforts, especially when it comes to terrorism, rely pretty fundamentally on cooperation with foreign intelligence services. They have access to knowledge, by virtue of their geographic location and language skills, that US agencies simply don’t. Some of them may even have their own spies inside terrorist groups.
So when they share a critical piece of intelligence with the United States, they do so with the explicit understanding that the US will not share that information with anyone else unless they say it’s okay. That’s because doing so could potentially endanger the lives of their spies out in the field.
So now America risks missing out on information it could use in its fight against terror because allies are worried about passing it on.
Fixing that problem would be simpler if the man charged with repairing that issue — President Trump — weren’t also a major source of the problem in the first place.
Zack Beauchamp contributed to this report.