Flurry of leaks alarms US allies

Current and former senior American officials are growing concerned that a deluge of leaks from the U.S. government will imperil some of the nation’s most important intelligence-sharing relationships.

The exposure of sensitive forensic information from the U.K.’s investigation into the Manchester bombing is unprecedented, some national security experts say — and Britain is right to be furious. 

“They need to find out how this type of information got out. I think it does damage to our capability of sharing intelligence on issues that we have to share intelligence on,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told The Hill.


Prime Minister Theresa May raised the issue at the NATO gathering in Brussels on Thursday evening, vowing beforehand that she would “make clear to President Trump that intelligence that is shared between our law enforcement agencies must remain secure.”

But the outrage over the Manchester investigation disclosures is only part of a growing international distrust with the U.S.'s ability to safeguard the secrets of its allies, intelligence experts say.

The Manchester incident comes after Trump apparently exposed highly classified information that came from Israel to two senior Russian officials during a meeting at the White House — without permission from Israel.

And Trump’s fledgling administration has been plagued by a string of press leaks — though most of them have been related to the president’s conduct, not national security secrets.

“I have yet to see the smoking gun that definitively connects [both of the two major Manchester leaks] to the United States government,” said Phillip Lohaus, a former Defense Department analyst who now specializes in U.S. and foreign intelligence at the conservative think tank AEI.

But, he said, “leaks have been such a problem for this administration, people are willing to make that assumption.”

The fear for some officials is that important intelligence partners — like America's fellow members of the so-called Five Eyes, the U.K., New Zealand, Australia and Canada — might think twice about handing over sensitive intelligence to the U.S.

Normally, intelligence-sharing is governed by trust. Under the so-called “control principle,” information provided to one country by another cannot be passed on without permission. It’s “rule No. 1 of intelligence-sharing,” as then-MI6 head Sir John Sawers explained in 2010.

U.K. intelligence was already wary after the White House suggested that Britain’s GCHQ had helped former President Obama wiretap Trump Tower — a claim for which so far there is no evidence and which led the British intel agency to issue a rare and strongly worded statement denying the charge.

Hinting at the strained relations between the longtime allies, the Manchester police have now cut off the U.S. from receiving intelligence about their investigation of the terrorist attack.

But the broader U.S.-U.K. sharing apparatus remains intact, and intelligence experts say the relationship is robust enough to survive this particular incident.

May stopped short of suggesting that the U.K. might cut off information to the U.S. — and, in fact, the intelligence-sharing apparatus at the national level is so seamless, Lohaus said, it would be difficult to split up.

“They can firewall it off temporarily — but over the long term, it wouldn’t be in their best interest. These sharing relationships have thwarted countless attacks,” he said.

Others say the U.S. will have to show it has taken remedial steps to stifle future leaks. 

“The United Kingdom is one of our best intelligence partners, and the intel-sharing relationship is critical to our security and theirs,” said Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffJan. 6 panel faces new test as first witness pleads the Fifth Jan. 6 panel releases contempt report on Trump DOJ official ahead of censure vote The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to update Americans on omicron; Congress back MORE (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

“Any break or deviation from that relationship or the profound trust we have in the British and they have in us would be a grave loss for both countries. We must take any steps necessary to remedy this problem immediately.” 

Trump on Thursday asked the Justice Department and other relevant agencies to launch an investigation into the leaks — although it’s still unclear whether the source of the at least one of the two major disclosures out of Manchester originated in the U.S. intelligence community.

When several U.S. television networks reported the name of the Manchester bomber — without U.K. police approval — they cited “American officials.”

But when The New York Times published photos of fragments of the explosive device used in the attack, it did not identify the source of the information — leaving open the possibility of two different leakers, one of whom could potentially be British.

No matter the source, intelligence experts say, these disclosures are very different — and much more serious — than the scores of palace intrigue leaks about the Trump White House that have emerged in the press.

Trump in February called for the Justice Department to investigate what he termed “criminal leaks,” after media reports revealed the rancorous nature of a series of his phone calls with foreign leaders.

Typically, the agency where the leak occurred would initiate an internal investigation and then refer the matter to the Justice Department if it believes the disclosure to be illegal.

Justice receives referrals for approximately 40 leak cases a year, only a handful of which are investigated. Not all leaks are illegal — the disclosure must expose national defense or classified information to be considered criminal.

But in the case of the device photos and the Manchester attacker’s name, the information was sensitive enough that disclosing it could have had an impact on the ongoing counterterrorism investigation, national security experts say.

The U.K. National Police Council called the leaks a breach of trust, saying that the “damage is even greater when it involves unauthorized disclosure of potential evidence in the middle of a major counterterrorism investigation.” 

The name could tip off a suspect who didn’t know he had been identified, allowing him a chance to get away, said Mieke Eoyang, head of the national security program at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.

The photos of the bomb fragments, meanwhile, would mean little to the average reader — but might help another would-be attacker build a similar device.

“I don’t think in terrorism investigation I have seen photos of the device before you’ve got all potential suspects in custody,” Eoyang said.