• Classified police photos and other intelligence related to the Manchester bombing were leaked to US reporters.
• Intelligence analysts have told Business Insider that the leaks are potentially damaging for strategic, operational, and political reasons.
• But former CIA senior councillor Robert Deitz said the intelligence-sharing relationship will not be seriously harmed, even in the short-term.
LONDON — Intelligence experts have told Business Insider that the leaks of highly sensitive information related to the Manchester bombing pose risks to the ongoing operation, but will not cause long-term damage to diplomatic relations.
What intelligence has been shared?
A number of details about the attack were reported by US news networks NBC and CBS shortly after the attack, before British police had released them publicly.
US reporters revealed details including initial death tolls, the fact that it had been perpetrated by a suicide bomber, and the attacker’s name.
The biggest leak came on Wednesday, when a tranche of details related to the Manchester Arena crime scene was reported by New York Times, which later defended its coverage as “comprehensive and responsible.” These details included:
- Photos of the backpack containing the nail bomb used in the attack
- Photos of bloody metal nails and screws contained in the bomb
- Details of how the bomb may have been detonated
- A map detailing the blast area, with locations of victims’ and bodies
When are intelligence breaches potentially dangerous?
Robert Deitz was senior councillor to the director of the CIA from 2006 until February 2009, before which he was general counsel at the National Security Agency.
He told Business Insider: “Leaks are not inherently dangerous. A ‘leak’ that President Trump eats two coddled eggs on toast each morning is not dangerous.
“What makes leaks dangerous is: A) whether they endanger national security and b) whether they risk the source or method of the intelligence.”
Under those conditions, he said, leaks can become dangerous for a number of reasons. They can jeopardise the source, disrupt a planned operation based on that intelligence, and disrupt the close relationship between two normally allied intelligence communities.
Leaks can be a “free pass” for the enemies of the state
Dr Chris Westcott is a visiting senior research fellow at the International Centre for Security Analysis, which carries out policy research on international security issues. He said the potential danger of the kind of leaks comes at three levels: Operationally, strategically, and politically.
He said: “All intelligence and law enforcement agencies want to protect their sources and their methods. Clearly, in this case, there seems to have been a leak of some very specific information, which would normally be being held very close either within law enforcement or within intelligence communities.”
Westcott said the strategic danger posed by some intelligence leaks is the risk that “your adversaries have the opportunity to learn what you know about them. That makes them stronger and it makes law enforcement and intelligence agencies somewhat weaker.”
He added: “Whether it’s a criminal investigation or an intelligence investigation, knowledge is power. Agencies are trying to get the balance of knowledge to be in favour of law enforcement and the intelligence agencies and restrict the amount of knowledge and learning that your adversary can gain from your own activities.”
The senior research fellow said the Manchester leaks, and others similar in nature, could provide a “free pass” for “the adversaries of law enforcement and intelligence agencies.” Those strategic and operational risks then feed up to the political level, he added.
“Intelligence — and law enforcement — is a global business. It requires alliances between institutions which are often arrived at and maintained at the political level. And this starts having implications at the political level as well.”
What risks could the Manchester bombing leaks have posed?
The New York Times defended its decision to publish detailed images of the Manchester Arena crime scene following Monday’s terror attack.
Westcott said the “very detailed nature” of the report could be of aid to future perpetrators of terror attacks.
He said: “Once we start coming down to very specific photographs and details of the bomber and the device used, if you’re a perpetrator who’s aiming to make similar devices in the future — or indeed you’re the person who made that device — you can learn something about its effectiveness and what is left by looking at the photographs in the New York Times. That is information you would not usually be able to come by.”
The name of 22-year-old Salman Abedi, the suspected perpetrator of the Manchester attack, was also reported by two US news networks following the attack, before police in the city had released the name.
The reason names are not usually released, Deitz said, is so that police or security forces can round up potential co-conspirators, who “may take comfort and feel secure in the belief that the bomber has destroyed himself along with his identity.” Releasing his or her name prematurely could give co-conspirators time to hide or cover their tracks, he said.
Should news agencies have published the leaks?
Dr Joe Devanny is also a research fellow at ICSA, specialising in open-source intelligence. He said there was “clearly a difference” between releasing information that is directly prejudicial to an investigation and less relevant information, such as reported casualty figures.
Ultimately, though, he said it was the responsibility of agencies from which information originates to determine whether information should be released.
“If the intelligence is the product of one originating government agency, then the decisions about what pieces of information are shared — both with government partners and the press — should be the responsibility of that agency,” he said.
Intelligence partners and the press “can and should” take their cues from the decisions of the government agency regarding what is releasable, Devanny said.
Is the Trump administration at fault?
Criticism of Trump’s leaky administration was amplified last week after he shared highly classified information with Russian officials, but there is a precedent for leaks from government agencies.
Deitz said: “Leaks are not new for any government. This is the price of a democratic government and a free press. Most democratic governments hate going after the press.”
According to a former head of London’s Metropolitan Police, there is a more recent precedent for US intelligence malpractice before Trump. Lord Blair, who was Met commissioner until 2008, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that US officials had been responsible for a similar breach after the 7/7 bombings.
“I’m afraid it just reminds me exactly of what happened after 7/7 when the US published a complete picture of the way the bombs in 7/7 had been made up and we had the same protests,” he said.
“It’s a different world in which the US operates in the sense of how they publish things. This is a very grievous breach but I’m afraid it’s the same as before.”
Will it damage the intelligence-sharing relationship between the UK and the US?
Both countries are members of the so-called Five Eyes community, which is comprised of the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Deitz describes these countries as “the closest intel community in the world,” of which the US and UK are most important because they devote the most resources to intelligence.
A rupture between the US and UK on intel would not only hurt each of them, it would also harm info sharing across Europe and Asia.
He said: “A rupture between the US and UK on intelligence would not only hurt each of them, it would also harm info sharing across Europe and Asia.”
Devanny also emphasises that the BBC report that Manchester police have stopped sharing intelligence relating to the Manchester attack with the US must be understood within its limited context.
He said: “The police decision to withhold intelligence sharing on a temporary basis relating to this investigation seems to me to be a proportionate response to what appears to be US officials leaking to US reporters.
“That is put in the context of what is a wider, deeper, very long-standing and very valuable intelligence-sharing relationship between the US and the UK and the other Five Eyes parties, which transcends just law enforcement.
“It’s military and civilian intelligence reporting as well, and none of that, as I understand it, is affected by the decision that was announced in the statement by the police. You’re looking at a specific, limited, presumably temporary, and proportionate step.”
Words will be exchanged, Deitz said, but he is sceptical that the leaks will damage the US-UK intelligence sharing relationship in the short-term.
“I expect seniors in GCHQ, MI5, etc. to call their US counterparts and complain. And the US counterparts will apologise,” he said. “I doubt whether intelligence relationships between the US and the UK will be seriously harmed even in the short run by this event.”
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