US-UK leaks row hits Manchester probe, 8 arrested

The leaks from US officials were considered serious enough to be taken up by Prime Minister Theresa May with President Donald Trump during a Nato summit in Brussels.

world Updated: May 30, 2017 23:04 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar and Yashwant Raj
Prasun Sonwalkar and Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, London/Washington
Manchester terror attack,Prime Minister Theresa May,President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May react during a ceremony at the new NATO headquarters before the start of a summit in Brussels, Belgium, May 25, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann(REUTERS)

Two leaks of classified information related to the Manchester terror attack strained close relations between Britain and the US on Thursday as the number of arrests in UK’s “intense” counter-terror operations rose to eight.

The leaks from US officials were considered serious enough to be taken up by Prime Minister Theresa May with President Donald Trump during a Nato summit in Brussels. An irate Greater Manchester Police (GMP) is said to have stopped sharing information with the US.

With the US annoying two of its closest allies, Israel and the UK, by its recent inability to keep secrets, Trump ordered a “complete review” of leaks following angry complaints from Britain.

Before leaving for Brussels, May chaired another meeting of her government’s emergency committee (“Cobra”), and confirmed she would make clear to Trump that intelligence shared between law enforcement agencies “must remain secure”.

Home secretary Amber Rudd had publicly rebuked US officials for naming the suspected suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, hours before the GMP did on Tuesday. Another widely publicised leak included images and details of shrapnel and remains of a backpack used by Abedi in the attack that killed 22 people and injured 75.

GMP chief constable Ian Hokins said family liaison officers told families of victims that intelligence had been leaked and published in The New York Times, adding this had caused “much distress”.

Floral tributes and messages of support left around the statue at St Ann's Square in Manchester. (AFP)

He would not add to a statement issued by the National Counter Terrorism Police Network, which said Britain valued important relationships with intelligence, law enforcement and security partners around the world that “enable us to collaborate and share privileged and sensitive information that allows us to defeat terrorism”.

The statement added, “When that trust is breached it undermines these relationships, and undermines our investigations and the confidence of victims, witnesses and their families. This damage is even greater when it involves unauthorised disclosure of potential evidence in the middle of a major counter-terrorism investigation.”

Hopkins said the “fast-moving investigation” at a number of addresses across the UK had led to eight arrests, all men. A woman arrested on Wednesday was released.

“I want to reassure people that the arrests that we have made are significant, and initial searches of premises have revealed items that we believe are very important to the investigation,” he said.

A Whitehall source described the second US leak of images of shrapnel and remains of the suicide bomber’s clothing as “on another level”, and told BBC it caused “disbelief and astonishment” across the British government.

A senior unnamed Whitehall source told The Guardian that protests had been lodged at every relevant level with the US. “They are in no doubt about our huge strength of feeling on this issue. It is unacceptable,” the source said.

Trump, currently in Brussels, ordered a review of the leaks of sensitive information, describing them as a grave threat to national security. He said in a White House statement: “I am asking the Department of Justice and other relevant agencies to launch a complete review of this matter, and if appropriate, the culprit should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

On Wednesday, Israel said it had altered information-sharing protocols with the US after Trump passed on information from its informant, embedded in the Islamic State, to Russians, probably endangering the source’s life.

Israel and the UK are America’s closest allies in intelligence-sharing. The US and the UK, with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, belong to the close-knit intelligence-sharing alliance called “Five Eyes”.

A British army soldier and a police officer secure an entrance to the defence ministry in London. (AFP)

Israel seemed less upset than the UK, but only because it wasn’t dealing with a terror attack. Asked about intelligence-sharing between the US and Israel earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had Trump by his side then, said it’s never been better.

But soon after Trump left, the Israelis opened up. “I can confirm that we did a spot repair and that there’s unprecedented intelligence cooperation with the US,” defence minister Avigdor Liberman said.

“What we had to clarify with our friends in the US, we did. We did our checks,” he added, declining to discuss details.

Trump shared highly classified intelligence from the Israeli-run spy – who was the reason for a recent ban on laptops on some flights – with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and ambassador Sergey Kislyak at a White House meeting.

When it became public, Trump, who cheered leaks from the campaign trail but has come to view them differently as a target after the election, defended himself by arguing that he is the president and can decide what’s classified and what is not.

Former CIA director John Brennan told a congressional committee on Tuesday that sharing intelligence with the Russians was not in itself a crime but there are protocols to follow, and Trump had violated a few.

First Published: May 25, 2017 22:09 IST