NEW YORK — The ongoing leaks of sensitive information that have been a hallmark of the Trump administration are antagonizing one of America’s closest allies, with officials in Britain incensed over details of the Manchester bombing investigation finding their way into the news.
The longstanding practice of allied countries sharing intelligence had already been threatened by reports that President Donald Trump disclosed classified material gathered by Israel to Russian officials in a recent Oval Office meeting. Now police in Manchester have stopped sharing with the U.S. details of their probe into Monday’s concert attack that killed 22 people without a guarantee that leaks will be plugged, one British official told The Associated Press.
Investigators were upset about photos published in The New York Times that showed crime-scene evidence and about the release of bombing suspect Salman Abedi’s name at a time British officials were still withholding it. British Prime Minister Theresa May said she wants to discuss leaks with Trump at the NATO summit in Brussels.
Trump said Thursday that the leaks were “deeply troubling” and pose a grave threat to national security. He called for a Justice Department investigation and said the leaker should be prosecuted.
The president has complained bitterly about leaks that have revealed private communications with other foreign leaders and contacts that his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had with the Russian ambassador. Yet Trump’s administration is filled with people who privately reveal information to the press. Media reports of behind-the-scenes action and details about relations with Russia happen nearly every day.
“Sadly one of the chief culprits in leaking information has been the president himself, who may have injured our relationship with one of our other partners over his conversations with the Russians in the White House,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “So the White House can begin to take responsibility for a large part of the problem itself.”
The photos published in the Times showed the container that held the Manchester bomb and how it was concealed. There were pictures of a switch likely held in the bomber’s hand, the shrapnel from the device and a battery used to power it. At the time Abedi’s name became public, raids were underway in Manchester and in Libya, where the bomber’s father lives.
Some British officials were concerned that people affiliated with Abedi could hide or quickly detonate another bomb once his name was out, said Rep. Mike McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who said he talked to people involved in the case.
Leaks can also jeopardize investigations and judicial proceedings, said Nigel Inkster, former head of operations for MI6, the British intelligence agency.
“We shouldn’t have leaked that information,” said Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican. “That should be kept as sacrosanct. So whoever did it was wrong.”
The New York Times did not reveal how it obtained the photos and defended the decision to publish them.
“This is the kind of information and the kind of photographs we and others have published countless times after terrorism attacks,” said Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times. “It serves to inform people about the way attacks are conducted. It was not personal or insensitive. Nor did it violate the privacy of the victims. Law enforcement never asked us to remove the information.”
Information about terror attacks that occur in Europe is shared as a matter of course with American intelligence and law enforcement officials, who check their own files to see if suspects traveled to and from the U.S., and to offer any collaboration or support.
“We are facing the same enemy,” said Ali Soufan, a former FBI counterterrorism agent. “We probably might have a lot of information that can help our allies. We check our databases. We check our files.
“We do the same thing with them,” he said. “We’re one team.”
While sensitive information disclosed in the midst of an investigation can risk its integrity, it can also help investigators gather more tips and leads, said John Cohen, former acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security.
A former CIA officer now based in Britain, Bob Ayers, said British officials should “get over it.”
The Manchester police are “pouting, and ultimately that’s their choice, but they have to accept that they get more than they give,” Ayers said. “It’s a suicidal and stupid decision.”
He said there’s been friction that goes both ways across the Atlantic, noting that British authorities in 2012 blocked the extradition of a man accused of hacking into military and NASA computers. May, who was home secretary at the time, played a part in that decision, he said.
Schiff said, however, that it’s in the best interests of the United States not to do anything to jeopardize trust with Britain.
“The British have every right to be furious,” he said. “And we need to do everything we can to make sure that we respect the information that’s provided to us by our allies.”
Associated Press Writer Paisley Dodds in London contributed to this report.