WASHINGTON: Within minutes of British counter-terror police learning a deadly blast had struck Manchester Arena, their US counterparts were in the loop. That is how the security relationship — one of the world’s closest — is supposed to work. What is not supposed to happen, is for the information to leak.
The intimate intelligence cooperation between the two allies has paid off in multiple cases since the 9/11 attacks exposed the Western world to the threat of jihadist groups.
So when a bomber targeted Monday’s pop concert in northern England, killing 22 people, British authorities immediately shared what they knew with London-based officials from the FBI and CIA.
The details quickly flowed through top secret transatlantic pipelines to counter-terrorism units in Washington, who tapped their networks and databases to see what they could add to the fast-moving investigation by British police.
So far, so normal.
“It’s obviously the closest intelligence relationship in the world. And when something like this happens, the faucets open,” said a European diplomat in Washington.
But when American officials appeared to have leaked crucial early details to the media — the fact it was a suicide attack; the attacker’s name, Salman Abedi; police pictures of the bomb components — their counterparts were outraged.
London called it a breach of trust, and briefly suspended intelligence sharing, as Prime Minister Theresa May made clear to President Donald Trump during a NATO summit that shared intelligence must be “secure.”
Trump moved fast to contain the row — vowing to investigate the leaks and prosecute if need be — while his top diplomat headed to London to show solidarity with America’s closest ally.
“We take full responsibility,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Friday when grilled over the leaks: “This special relationship that exists between our two countries will certainly withstand this particular unfortunate event.”
The British reprimand was all the more embarrassing coming weeks after Trump was reported to have shared classified intelligence — allegedly from Israel — about an Islamic State bomb plot with the visiting Russian foreign minister.
Hundreds of eyes
Britain’s National Police Chiefs Council had warned the leaks could erode trust, slamming the “unauthorized disclosure of potential evidence in the middle of a major counter terrorism investigation.”
By late Thursday, the relationship appeared back on track.
“Having received fresh assurances, we are now working closely with our key partners around the world including all those in the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance,” said Mark Rowley, Britain’s lead officer for counter-terrorism policing.
Thomas Sanderson, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, expects the overall damage to the bilateral relationship to be “limited and perishable… until it happens again.”
Britain and Israel, Washington’s key intelligence partners, always have to weigh the benefits and liabilities of sharing information, he said. “Now they have to do that calculation a little bit more carefully, given that they feel the United States has become incredibly leaky.”
Who disclosed details of the Manchester probe remains an open question.
Given the expansion of intelligence resources and intensified cooperation on terrorism over the past 15 years, hundreds of people across the US government’s massive intelligence bureaucracy would have been privy to the information.
Within hours, it would have been shared with White House and National Security Council officials; senior members of Congress; military intelligence; the Homeland Security Department; FBI offices, and other agencies that might help the investigation.
The details collected by British police would also have immediately sped to counter-terror officials in the three other countries that make up the “Five Eyes” alliance — Australia, Canada and New Zealand — and to counterparts in Germany, France, and elsewhere in Europe.
The challenge of openness
Back in 2001, the September 11 attacks exposed a practice known as “stovepiping” — when different agencies fail to share crucial intelligence, with sometimes lethal consequences.
Since then, bureaucratic walls in Washington have been broken down, said Jeffrey Ringel, an FBI agent for 21 years and now director at the Soufan Group, a security and intelligence consultancy.
The flip side is that with so many more people accessing the information, the chance of it leaking is that much greater.
Ringel believes such leaks “hurt cooperation between partners,” and have no real justification.
“Nobody in the general public needs to know the name of the attacker, nobody in the general public needs to see the bomb-making components.”
The London-Washington rift comes at a tricky time for intelligence sharing.
Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union could complicate its security cooperation with those countries. Some European officials are pushing to create a transatlantic intelligence center to centralize sharing — but with little progress to date.
So a cutback on US-British counter-terror cooperation would flirt with disaster, analysts say, given the continuing threats from the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda.
Ringel’s concern is that leaks — if the problem persists — could drive a return to the bad old days of each country sitting tight on its little piece of the picture.
“That not only would hurt the investigation, possible follow-on investigations, but could also put people’s lives in danger,” said Ringel.