The intelligence leaks are not a Trump problem – the UK should have reconsidered this relationship long ago

Lord Blair disclosed that there had been similar breaches by US agencies in the wake of the 7/7 attacks in London. The difference then is that official UK fury was confined to diplomatic channels

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 25 May 2017 18:05 BST
Home Secretary Amber Rudd voiced her displeasure at the US leaks after the Manchester attack
Home Secretary Amber Rudd voiced her displeasure at the US leaks after the Manchester attack (Getty)

It was seen as a classic example of British understatement: the Home Secretary’s admission to the BBC that she was “irritated” by the leak to the US media of the Manchester suicide bomber’s name. But it was rather the opposite. For a Home Secretary to comment at all disparagingly on the US treatment of privileged UK information was a real departure. Since then, it has been downhill all the way.

Amber Rudd had followed up her comment in the same Today programme interview by saying she would be asking for assurances from Washington that there would be no repetition. But then there was. Within 24 hours The New York Times had published police photographs from the Manchester Arena, showing – or appearing to show – the backpack the bomber had worn and the method of detonation – information that had not been released.

The response? Fury in official quarters; a police announcement that they were suspending cooperation with their US colleagues; a promise from the Prime Minister to tell President Donald Trump that shared intelligence “must be secure”, and a rush by the UK’s knee-jerk Trump-critics to blame “this President” for the leaks. Given that shared intelligence, and the implied discretion that goes with it, is almost all that remains of the so-called special relationship, the state of UK-US relations is starting to look very like an additional casualty from the Manchester atrocity.

Nor should either side be allowed to get away with blaming the media. For all the opprobrium traditionally heaped on UK journalists, they – we – are generally respectful of security embargoes and police requests, so long as we understand the reasons. Delaying publication of the presumed bomber’s name makes sense, because it could alert associates. Withholding precise details of the method allows investigators time to trace suppliers and routes.

There is a big difference between these operational requests and statements intended to put the media off the scent or disguise police mistakes (the 2005 shooting of Jean-Charles de Menezes comes to mind). Not always, but often, journalists are quite good at detecting the difference.

There are many differences in the way the US and the British media work – until recently the degree of respect for authority was one. In the particular case of the Manchester bombing, however, it could also be argued that there was no security dimension – at least no national security dimension – to a US outlet publishing the name or the photos ahead of time.

Of course, that neglects the global aspect of communications today. But the chief responsibility for any breach rests with the agencies that passed on material that – in the British view at least – was not theirs to pass on. This was not a case of assiduous reporters ferreting out sensitive information, but of one or more branches of US law enforcement or security deliberately deciding to pass it on.

Why they might have done this, especially after the UK’s objections to the first leak, raises further questions. Could it have been mere bravado – a desire by a particular agency to show how “in the loop” or how “media-friendly” it was? Other theories have centred on Donald Trump.

Manchester attack: Police give latest investigation update

Some have suggested, conspiratorially, that one or other agency might have wanted to discredit Trump in the middle of his first foreign trip, as part of their continuing animus against him. That seems as unlikely, though, as the contrary idea, seized upon by his many UK detractors, that Trump himself was somehow responsible – after all, had he not just divulged classified information to the Russian foreign minister?

This seems even less plausible than the conspiracy theory. Not only is there scant chance that any leak of this kind would have been referred up to the White House, but it turns out that this apparently unprecedented release of “shared” information does indeed have a precedent. The former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Blair, disclosed that there had been similar breaches by US agencies in the wake of the 7/7 attacks in London. The difference then – an interesting and perhaps significance difference – is that official UK fury was confined to diplomatic channels.

Which brings us back to the “special relationship” and the sharing of intelligence that constitutes such a large part of it. As Theresa May left London for the Nato summit, where she intended to talk respect for shared secrets with Donald Trump, one of the most telling observations came from the BBC’s specialist security correspondent, Frank Gardner. UK security officials, he reported, were desperately trying to “ring fence” their cooperation with their US counterparts so that cooperation could continue unaffected by the row about leaked information from Manchester.

This says two things. First, that the intelligence agencies see themselves as distinct from – and superior to? – the law enforcement agencies, such as the police and the FBI. They do not want any blurring of the lines, even though the lines between the two are inevitably blurred where international terrorism is concerned, and should probably not exist at all. Second, the UK’s concern to maintain intelligence cooperation, even as police cooperation is suspended, underlines the lopsided nature of the relationship.

MI5, MI6 and GCHQ may be held in great respect by their US counterparts – at least, that is what they insist – and each may over the years have delegated tasks in such a way as to exploit discrepancies in national laws, to mutual advantage. With the resources and reach of the US agencies now in quite a different league from ours, could the liabilities of this “special” relationship be starting to outweigh the benefits?

The UK might currently take out as much, or more, than it puts in, but there are downsides – including a sense of diminished responsibility. In 2002-03, for instance, the UK followed the US to Iraq on the basis of intelligence on chemical weapons that France and Israel had interpreted more critically. Citing a theoretical risk to relations with “third countries” has also allowed MI6 and others to refuse to testify in court on such subjects as extraordinary rendition and the death of Alexander Litvinenko.

Now we have the leaks of information from Manchester. However and why this happened, the cavalier way in which one or more US agencies disregarded the UK’s legitimate security interests shows that a reconsideration of intelligence-sharing is now overdue.

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