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After intel leak, UK freezes out US on Manchester bombing

Details released by American sources to media — including attacker’s identity — ‘undermine’ attack probe, police say

Police activity at an address in Elsmore Road, in connection with the concert blast at the Manchester Arena, in Manchester, England, May 24, 2017. (Joe Giddens/PA via AP)
Police activity at an address in Elsmore Road, in connection with the concert blast at the Manchester Arena, in Manchester, England, May 24, 2017. (Joe Giddens/PA via AP)

Leaks from an investigation into the deadly Manchester terror attack are undermining the probe, British police said on Thursday, as the BBC reported that police had stopped sharing information with the US.

A spokesman for Britain’s anti-terror police said in a statement that British investigators relied on trust in security partners around the world.

“These relationships enable us to collaborate and share privileged and sensitive information that allows us to defeat terrorism and protect the public at home and abroad,” the spokesman said.

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

The BBC reported Thursday that Britain had stopped sharing information with US law enforcement “because of a series of leaks thought to have come from the American intelligence community.”

UK Prime Minister Theresa May was to raise the issue with US President Donald Trump during meeting of NATO member state leaders in Brussels later in the day, the report said.

Contacted by AFP, Greater Manchester Police declined to comment on the BBC report.

A picture released by British authorities of Salman Abedi, the suspect behind a suicide bombing that ripped into young fans at an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena on May 22, 2017. (Screen capture: YouTube via BBC News)
A picture released by British authorities of Salman Abedi, the suspect behind a suicide bombing that ripped into young fans at an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena on May 22, 2017. (Screen capture: YouTube via BBC News)

Twenty-two people, including several children, were killed on Monday when a bomb went off at a concert by US pop star Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena in Manchester, northwest England.

British-born Salman Abedi was identified as the suicide bomber. His name first surfaced in US media reports Tuesday, based on briefings given to US officials by their counterparts in London.

The New York Times published on Wednesday what appeared to be police photographs showing fragments from the bomb and a backpack used to conceal it.

Britain’s Home Secretary Amber Rudd told Sky News the same day that US officials had provided information to the news media that Britain preferred to keep confidential for reasons of operational security.

Britain has raised its official terror threat to “critical” — meaning it is likely an attack is imminent — and is trying to uncover a suspected extremist network before it strikes again.

Rudd said the “element of surprise” in the police and security service measures could be compromised by information being released too quickly. Rudd said she had complained to US officials to make sure the flow of information was staunched.

British officials hadn’t, for example, released the name of the bomber until it surfaced in the US media based on leaks from US officials briefed by their British counterparts. Other details also surfaced first because of leaks in Washington.

Britain's Home Secretary Amber Rudd arrives at Downing Street in central London on May 24, 2017, ahead of a meeting of the emergency Cobra committee in response to the May 22 terror attack at the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena. (AFP/ Justin TALLIS)
Britain’s Home Secretary Amber Rudd arrives at Downing Street in central London on May 24, 2017, ahead of a meeting of the emergency Cobra committee in response to the May 22 terror attack at the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena. (AFP/ Justin TALLIS)

The latest controversy surrounding leaks comes as European security officials have been expressing concern about sharing intelligence with the US after Trump discussed highly classified intelligence — apparently from an Israeli source — about the Islamic State group with senior Russian officials visiting the White House. Trump also reportedly revealed to the Philippine president that two American nuclear submarines were stationed near North Korea.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told reporters Wednesday he understands the concern about US leaks possibly harming the UK police operation.

“If that’s something that we did, I think that’s a real problem,” he said. “If we gave up information that has interfered in any way with their investigation because it tipped off people in Britain — perhaps associates of this person that we identified as the bomber — then that’s a real problem and they have every right to be furious.”

He said, however, that even if US intelligence sources shared vital information with the media, it likely would not affect the strong intelligence sharing relationship between the US and Britain because it helps both countries.

A European security official said “having a US leak when the situation has developed in the UK is nothing new.”

“Historically, and nearly philosophically, the US and UK intel services follow different paths,” the official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak about the investigation. “The US have adopted a ‘zero risk’ approach, meaning that the US services have a much shorter trigger when it comes to stop an ongoing operation. The UK services play it totally differently.”

Forensic officers work near the Manchester Arena in Manchester, Wednesday, May 24, 2017. (AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Forensic officers work near the Manchester Arena in Manchester, Wednesday, May 24, 2017. (AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

This was highlighted in the 2006 trans-Atlantic liquid bomb plot. Americans wanted to pounce to quickly stop the plot whereas British authorities were trying to better determine the suspects’ capability and wider terror connections, according to two British officials who worked on the case at the time.

US Homeland Security Department spokesman David Lapan declined to say Wednesday if suspected bomber in the Manchester attack, Salman Abedi, had been placed on the US no-fly list. Under normal circumstances, he said, Abedi may have been able to travel to the United States because he was from Britain, a visa-waiver country, but he would have been subjected to a background check via the US government’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA.

Lapan said the Homeland Security Department has shared some information about Abedi’s travel with the British government, but declined to offer specifics. Customs and Border Protection has access to a broad array of air travel information through the US government’s National Targeting Center.

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