Furious U.K. Slams U.S. for Undermining Terror Hunt
American intelligence officials repeatedly passed sensitive information to the media that Britain wanted to keep under wraps in one of its most urgent security operations in years.
LONDON—Five Eyes, one big mouth.
Donald Trump isn’t the only leaky vessel with access to highly classified intelligence from America’s closest allies.
Seemingly every twist of Britain's complex hunt for the terror network that struck in Manchester, England this week has been handed directly to the media by U.S. intelligence officials.
The British government has been left flabbergasted by the repeated breaches of trust, which have compromised the investigation into the murder of 22 people—many of them children—at an Ariana Grande show. Prime Minister Theresa May will complain directly to Trump when she meets him in Brussels on Thursday.
In the 24 hours after the attack, the British security services executed their well-drilled counter-terror strategy: Identify the attacker as quickly as possible and move on his network of contacts before the killer’s name or precise modus operandi becomes public.
Unfortunately for MI5 and the North West Counter Terrorism Unit, their highly sensitive operation was being undermined by constant news reports from the U.S.—broadcasting their findings to the world, including ISIS and al Qaeda operatives or sympathizers watching at home or abroad.
Under the Five Eyes agreement, a huge quantity of signals intelligence is automatically shared among the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K. on the understanding that the secrecy is respected and maintained by all governments.
Even beyond that, the U.K. and U.S. have perhaps the world’s closest intelligence-sharing relationship—relying on one another for assistance on tracking down bad actors and their accomplices scattered across global terror networks.
This week, the closeness of that relationship became a real problem for Britain.
In an unprecedented move, Britain's National Counter Terrorism Policing unit released a scathing official statement.
"We greatly value the important relationships we have with our trusted intelligence, law enforcement and security partners around the world. When that trust is breached it undermines these relationships, and undermines our investigations and the confidence of victims, witnesses and their families," a spokesman said.
"This damage is even greater when it involves unauthorised disclosure of potential evidence in the middle of a major counter-terrorism investigation."
The Home Secretary had earlier taken the extraordinary step of personally criticising the U.S. intelligence apparatus in public.
During a BBC radio interview, Amber Rudd was asked if Britain had been concerned that details—including the method of attack, number of victims, and even name of the attacker—had all been given to the American media by U.S. intelligence officials.
"Yes, quite frankly,” she 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 when it gets released from other sources.”
As well as this rare public riposte, Rudd said Britain’s dismay had already been communicated through private channels. “I have been very clear with our friends that that should not happen again… I can say they are perfectly clear about the situation.”
This extremely rare public criticism underlines just how angry the British intelligence community was made by the leaks.
After Trump reportedly compromised an Israeli asset embedded within ISIS during his meeting with top Russian officials, Benjamin Netanyahu stood alongside the president and cheerfully yelled to the press: “Intelligence cooperation is terrific!”
Reports have suggested there were angry exchanges between U.S. and Israeli intel officials—but nothing was said in public.
As well as upsetting U.S. allies, there was no shortage of outrage from the intelligence community back at home, as people asked if the CIA could trust Trump with the most sensitive of classified information.
The last few days have suggested that it’s not just an unpredictable man in the Oval Office who might compromise an ally’s intelligence.
Whatever assurances were given to London, a glance at the U.S. media Wednesday would suggest that some American intelligence operatives have chosen to disregard the request.
The New York Times published crime scene photographs that showed smears of blood from some of the British music fans who were slain in cold-blood. Images of the detonation device, remnants of the explosives and the bag used in the attack also threatened to derail future prosecutions and the investigation into a potential network of jihadi accomplices.
A senior government official told Britain's Press Association: "We are furious. This is completely unacceptable."
NBC News had earlier quoted a U.S. intelligence official with “direct knowledge of the investigation” giving far more detail than was shared by senior officials with the British media.
That NBC report claims that Salman Abedi was identified at the scene of the crime via facial-recognition technology and has "clear ties to al Qaeda."
The official also told NBC News that Abedi had traveled to multiple countries in the last 12 months, including Libya, where his parents were born. ISIS and al Qaeda are “actively co-operating” in the North African country, according to the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.
There are also known smuggling routes from Libya into ISIS territory in Syria, which may explain how a poorly educated youth from South Manchester was trained to pull off Britain’s worst terrorist atrocity since 2005.
Rudd said this morning that it was “likely” Abedi had help from a terror cell, although officials have not confirmed a link. The British security services increased the threat alert to “critical” on Tuesday night, however, which suggests they have intelligence pointing toward a specific and imminent threat. Almost 1,000 armed military operatives have been deployed on British streets.
Nigel Farage, the arch Brexit campaigner, complained on Twitter that the British intelligence services were being too reticent. “We've learned more about Salman Abedi from American and French security services than the U.K. government,” he wrote.
Gérard Collomb, the French interior minister, told a French television network that Britain had been keeping France informed about its operation to track down a network that may have been assisting Abedi.
“We don’t know that yet today, but maybe,” Collomb told BFMTV. “In any case, [he had] known links with Daesh [ISIS].”
“Today we only know what British investigators have told us,” said Collomb. He is “someone of British nationality, of Libyan origin, who grew up in Great Britain and who, all of a sudden, after a trip to Libya, then most likely to Syria, becomes radicalized and decides to carry out this attack.”