LONDON—In trouble with global allies, Donald Trump apparently has sided with the British Prime Minister against members of his own government in an attempt to defuse the most poisonous diplomatic row in generations of the so-called “special relationship.”
At a moment of national trauma, Britain felt betrayed as never before by the United States. Intimate details of the investigation into a savage killer and his network of jihadi accomplices has been undermined by repeated leaks to the American media.
Within hours of an improvised nail bomb ripping into a crowd of kids and their parents in Manchester, England—killing 22 and wounding 50 more—the U.S. intelligence agencies were passing crucial information from the investigation straight to the American media.
After increasingly desperate—and unprecedented—public appeals from senior British officials for the U.S. intel community to stop, the New York Times was handed crime scene photographs of the bloodstained lobby where Salman Abedi is believed to have detonated his deadly weapon.
That was the final straw. The BBC reported that the British security services stopped sharing intelligence with their American counterparts, and Prime Minister Theresa May made an extraordinary television statement in which she said she would confront the U.S. president at Thursday’s NATO summit. “I will make clear to President Trump that intelligence that is shared between our law enforcement agencies must remain secure,” she said.
The House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff said: “The British government has every right to be furious.”
Although a senior U.S. intelligence official suggested to The Daily Beast that the public outrage was partly motivated by frustration, not least since May’s previous role as Home Secretary had been to oversee security and intelligence operations. “They’re embarrassed about this, they had him [Abedi] on their list, had his travels documented, knew his father, had files on all these people. They were watching him, but not well enough,” the official said.
Trump responded to May’s anger by ordering a Department of Justice probe into the source of the information. “The leaks of sensitive information pose a grave threat to our national security,” he said, in a statement released by the White House. “If appropriate, the culprit should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
The leaks had shattered a fundamental principle of intelligence: Always deny your opponent knowledge of what you know, when you knew it, and how you know it.
This week’s bomber may have been no more than a brain-washed mule, a subsidiary to the terror operation, which means the key objective—and an urgent one—is to find the support group behind the attack, the cell, and beyond the cell the network.
There are all sorts of leads here to Libya, and also many failures on the part of the British intelligence and security services: the failure to intercept the planning, the failure to track the mule. Where were the ingredients for the explosive acquired? The crime scene pictures offer clues to all of these matters—potentially revealing the architecture of the backpack bomb, the identity of the people involved; the materials and the provenance of its design.
Every one of these details is compromised simply by the release of these pictures, arguably making the New York Times an accessory to aiding and abetting the enemy.
“This is unprecedented in the history of the special relationship,” said former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, in an email to The Daily Beast.
“It is extremely rare for an intelligence partner to stop sharing information,” said Shawn Turner, former spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence. He couldn’t recall a time that this happened during an active investigation.
He said information shared with the United States from an ally about a terrorist attack gets distributed as U.S. officials think necessary across the intelligence agencies, the FBI and law enforcement. The information also gets briefed to a small number of people on Capitol Hill, so there are a number of places it could’ve leaked out other than intelligence community, he added.
Chris Abbott, the executive director of Open Briefing, an international team of former military and intelligence officers, told The Daily Beast that the leaking by U.S. officials had spun out of control.
“Revealing the bomber’s name and crime-scene photographs that detail elements of the bomb may have jeopardized an ongoing counter-terrorism operation and a criminal investigation. This puts lives at risk. The U.S. government urgently needs to get a handle on how it treats information from its allies. But this is going to be difficult when the man currently at the top has such a cavalier attitude to intelligence,” he said.
Trump has had a tumultuous relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies—publicly doubting their findings at, at times, likening them to Nazis. The president has previously admitted to sharing classified intelligence about the inner workings if ISIS during an Oval office meeting with the Russians. It will be far more difficult to work out who was responsible for the leaks on the Manchester attack.
Shawn Turner, former spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence, said information shared with the United States from an ally about a terrorist attack gets distributed as U.S. officials think necessary across the intelligence agencies, the FBI and law enforcement, as per who they think needs to know what to guard against a similar attack in United States. The information also gets briefed to a small number of people on Capitol Hill, so there are a number of places it could’ve leaked out other than intelligence community, he added.
One senior intelligence official, who has worked in several sectors of the intelligence community under both Republican and Democrat administrations, told The Daily Beast that any increase in leaks during this counter-terror operation was likely part of the ongoing effort by some Obama era holdovers to make Trump appear weak and incompetent, although he had no specific information about the origin of these leaks.
“There’s a lot of insidious kind of bullshit going on where they’re putting stuff out there in the media to make POTUS look bad,” he said.
On the other hand, Trump’s strongest point of common ground with other world leaders is the fight against the terrorists he calls “evil losers,” and the American leaks, which came at a time when British officials were being especially cautious about assigning responsibility, intensified the specific focus on Islamic terrorism.
“There should be no sense of anger on our part, rather a sense of disappointment and embarrassment in our own performance,” said former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden in an email to The Daily Beast. “This is British information that is shared on the condition that we will follow British rules. They have an absolute right to do what they did. It should be a lesson for us.”
With additional reporting by Kim Dozier.