BRUSSELS The British government scolded the United States on Wednesday after confidential details about the Manchester suicide bomber that had been shared with U.S. intelligence agents were leaked to the news media.
It was the second time this month that the United States has been accused of divulging intelligence from another government. President Donald Trump was accused of sharing Israeli intelligence with Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting May 10.
Leaks have been a major topic of conversation in Washington, as Trump has accused the intelligence agencies of leaking unflattering portrayals of his administration to the news media. But worries about intelligence leaks predate the Trump administration. British intelligence shared with the United States also ended up in news reports during the Obama administration.
British Home Secretary Amber Rudd called it “irritating” on BBC radio that her American counterparts had leaked the identity of the suspected bomber. British police had hoped to keep that information under wraps as they searched for potential accomplices.
“The British police have been very clear that they want to control the flow of information in order to protect operational integrity, the element of surprise,” Rudd said. “So it is irritating when it gets released from other sources.”
Twenty-two people were killed in Monday’s bombing of an Ariana Grande concert. U.S. news outlets were the first to report the name of the suspect, 22-year-old Salman Abedi, a Manchester-born resident. British authorities confirmed the name only after it had been made public.
Trump arrived in Brussels on Wednesday, where the leaks will likely be discussed at gatherings of NATO and European leaders. It could complicate planned discussions Thursday of a new NATO intelligence division, which was formed to encourage more sharing of intelligence.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg downplayed the controversy Wednesday. He said he didn’t think it would affect the sharing of information in any way.
“I trust all our allies that they’re able to handle intelligence in a good way,” he said.
U.S. intelligence agencies have no closer allies than their counterparts in Britain, which include MI6, the secret intelligence service – employer of the fictional James Bond – and the Government Communications Headquarters, which sweeps the skies for electronic signals.
Trump has shared his own concerns about leaks from the U.S. intelligence community. Since being sworn into office, he has been besieged by a series of news stories that have undermined his administration.
The revelations led to the firing of his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and forced his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to recuse himself from an investigation involving Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential elections.
The British police have been very clear that they want to control the flow of information in order to protect operational integrity, the element of surprise. So it is irritating when it gets released from other sources.
British Home Secretary Amber Rudd
Trump described the leaks as one of the biggest untold stories in Washington.
“It’s a criminal action, criminal act,” Trump said in February, “and it’s been going on for a long time before me, but now it’s really going on.”
U.S. authorities have investigated leaks under previous administrations, too. In 2012, the U.S. opened an inquiry into who had revealed that the man who had helped stop a Yemen-based al Qaida “underwear bomb” plot was a British man of Middle Eastern origin.
Leon Panetta, who at the time was secretary of defense, said the leaks could hamper intelligence gathering.
“When these leaks take place, I can’t tell you how much they damage our ability to be able to pursue our intelligence efforts,” he said.
In 2005, British intelligence officers shared information about bomb attacks in London that later appeared in New York media.
But European allies and their intelligence agencies have been particularly wary about whether the Trump administration could be trusted with their sensitive intelligence considering reports of the president’s ties to an adversary, Russia.
Experts warned in January that the British would likely shut down sharing partnerships if they came to believe the United States couldn’t be trusted with sensitive information.