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UK police suspend intelligence-sharing with US over Manchester media leaks

© Oli Scarff, AFP | Flags fly at half-mast as British police patrol outside Greater Manchester police headquarters during a visit by Prime Minister Theresa May on May 23.

Text by Khatya CHHOR

Latest update : 2017-05-29

Police have stopped sharing intelligence on the Manchester Arena attack with the United States after a series of leaks to the press that they said risked “undermining” the ongoing counter-terrorism investigation.

British police said Wednesday that such recklessness with sensitive information has jeopardised the mutual trust that underpins security cooperation between foreign partners.

“When that trust is breached it undermines these relationships, and undermines our investigations and the confidence of victims, witnesses and their families,” said a National Counter Terrorism Policing spokesperson.

“This damage is even greater when it involves unauthorised disclosure of potential evidence in the middle of a major counter terrorism investigation.”

Twenty-two people were killed Monday night when a suicide-bomber targeted Manchester Arena shortly after a concert by US pop star Ariana Grande. 

Forensic evidence gathered at the scene by British police was published by The New York Times on Wednesday, including detailed descriptions and photos of the remains of the bomb, a detonator and a shredded backpack possibly used by the bomber.

Following a series of unauthorised disclosures to US media earlier in the week, Britain believes US officials were also responsible for leaking the crime scene photos to the press.

The decision to stop sharing information with US authorities was made by the Greater Manchester police and not the prime minister’s office, a Downing Street spokesman told the Guardian, adding that officers have a certain degree of latitude and calling it an “operational matter”.

One former senior intelligence official described the move in a BBC 4 interview on Thursday as an “unprecedented halt in intelligence-sharing”. 

British Prime Minister Theresa May will address the leaks when she meets with US President Donald Trump at a NATO summit in Brussels later on Thursday. May said she would underscore that any shared intelligence "must remain secure".

A senior government source said the UK was "furious" over the breaches and that Britain had made its objections known “at every relevant level”.

“These images from inside the American system are clearly distressing to victims, their families and other members of the public,” the source said. “Protests have been lodged at every relevant level between the British authorities and our US counterparts. They are in no doubt about our huge strength of feeling on this issue. It is unacceptable.”

Previous warnings

The new round of US media revelations came even after US officials had been warned over previous leaks involving the Manchester investigation.

Britain’s interior minister, Home Secretary Amber Rudd, said in an interview aired Wednesday that she made clear to US officials that such leaks "shouldn't happen again".

Rudd noted that it was important to control the flow of information on any ongoing investigation to ensure police maintain the “element of surprise”.

"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,” she told BBC Radio 4's "Today" programme.

"So it is irritating when it gets released from other sources and I have been very clear with our friends that that should not happen again."

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham also denounced the leaks in talks with the acting US ambassador, Lew Lukens.

“It’s not acceptable to me that, here there is a live investigation taking place and we cannot have information being put in the public domain that is not in the direct control of the British police and security services,” Burnham told BBC Newsnight on Wednesday.

Lukens also condemned the leaks and said US authorities were investigating the possible sources.

“These leaks were reprehensible, deeply distressing, we unequivocally condemn them, we agree absolutely with the chief constable and with the concerns of the United Kingdom,” Lukens said in an interview with BBC Radio 4.

"We are determined to identify these leaks and to stop them.”

Asked whether such incidents would affect future cooperation between US and British intelligence agencies, Lukens said: “I hope not.”

Israel revises US cooperation

Recent indiscretions have raised questions about the US administration’s commitment to the confidentiality necessary to protect intelligence sources and ongoing operations. Trump dismayed both US politicians and foreign allies earlier this month when he revealed top secret intelligence on Islamic State (IS) group plans to threaten airliners in an Oval Office meeting with Russian officials.

He raised more concerns on Monday during a trip to Israel, when he announced to Israeli officials that he never identified Israel as having been the source of intelligence on the IS group plans.

“Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name ‘Israel',” Trump said. “Never mentioned it during that (Oval Office) conversation.”

But to many observers, the pronouncement seemed to be an admission that the source had, in fact, been Israel. "Donald Trump appears to have inadvertently confirmed that Israel was the source of intelligence he shared with Russia," the Guardian observed.

Trump: "I never mentioned Israel."

News of the revelations was being taken very seriously by the Israeli spy community, a military intelligence officer told USA Today last week. The officer, who asked not to be identified, said Israel had been warned months ago to be cautious about sharing information with the Trump administration and that it now looked like the warning was justified.

Israel appeared to take steps to address its concerns on Wednesday, with Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman announcing that Israeli officials had done a “spot repair” of their intelligence-sharing arrangements with Washington.

“We discussed the issue with our friends in America,” Liberman told Army Radio. “We did our checks.”

Liberman did not specify what alterations had been made, saying: “Not everything needs to be discussed in the media; some things need to be talked about in closed rooms.” But he added that the US-Israeli alliance remained strong and that, overall, there is “unprecedented intelligence cooperation with the United States”.

Other US allies also appear to be on edge over the Trump administration’s penchant for disclosure.

A senior European intelligence official told The Associated Press last week that his country might stop sharing sensitive information with the United States if it is confirmed that Trump shared classified intelligence with Russian officials, saying that to do otherwise “could be a risk for our sources”. The official spoke on condition of anonymity and declined to have his country identified.

Burkhard Lischka, a senior lawmaker from Germany’s Social Democratic Party, also expressed concern about the reports, telling AP: “[I]f it proves to be true that the American president passed on internal intelligence matters, that would be highly worrying”.

Lischka, a member of the German parliament’s intelligence oversight committee, observed that the US president has access to “exclusive and highly sensitive information, including in the area of combating terrorism”.

He said that if the president “passes this information to other governments at will, then Trump becomes a security risk for the entire Western world”.

Date created : 2017-05-25

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