American officials have been criticised for leaking the identity of the Manchester bomber before British police officially named him.
Salman Abedi was identified in media reports that attributed “US officials” as the source even as their British counterparts remained tight-lipped.
The disclosures renewed concerns over leaks from Donald Trump’s administration two weeks after the US president revealed classified information, apparently from Israel, to Russia’s foreign minister in a White House meeting. Critics warn that US allies may be less willing to share intelligence in the future.
Although UK journalists had Abedi’s name, the UK government and Greater Manchester police declined to confirm it more than two hours after it appeared in the US press. Earlier in the day, the government indicated it might not release the name at all on Tuesday because the investigation was continuing.
On Monday night, a correspondent for America’s ABC network tweeted: “Leading theory is Manchester was a suicide bomber, US senior law enforcement official briefed on the investigation tells @ABC.”
On Tuesday, CBS and NBC were quick to name the suspect believed to have blown himself up following an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena as 22-year-old Salman Abedi. The Reuters news agency, an international organisation with headquarters in London, also published the name, citing “three US officials”, before British police made it public.
The Trump administration’s apparent indiscretion seems likely to cause consternation in London and could raise questions about future cooperation in the long term.
Thomas Sanderson, director of the transnational threats project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies thinktank in Washington, said the disclosures would be irritating to the British. “Suddenly you’ve got 10,000 reporters descending on the bomber’s house when maybe the police wanted to approach it more subtly,” he said.
Sanderson warned of ill judgment and lack of discipline in the White House. “This is a leaky administration. What does that mean for sharing information we need to going forward? The UK and Israel are probably our two biggest sources of intelligence. Now they’re thinking, ‘Is this going to cause us damage every time we share?’ Then you have to calculate every piece of information.”
Perry Cammack, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, added: “I don’t think in and of itself this episode will do lasting harm; I sense this was a miscommunication. But the context is that we’re in the midst of a political crisis in Washington of the first order. The institutions are leaking at an unprecedented rate. It feels like things are under stress here.”
Asked if the UK would be less willing to share information in future, Cammack, a former state department official, replied: “I hope we’re not at that point yet and I suspect we’re not. There are broad relationships that are personal in many cases but I’m sure people are paying attention. It is happening in the context of quite a turbulent time in Washington and, if it goes on indefinitely, there is some scope for partners to reevaluate the integrity of information.”
Frustration in the UK was expressed by professor Lawrence Freedman, who was a member of the official inquiry into the Iraq war. “US seems to have been passing stuff from last night to their journos. It will get to the stage where UK officials will stop sharing,” he tweeted.
Freedman, professor of war studies at King’s College, London, was asked in a tweet why the US would have disclosed the name. Freedman replied: “An American colleague suggests simple indiscipline. Showing off what they know.”
In spite of Freedman’s warning that the UK might withhold information in the future, it is unlikely as the UK is the main beneficiary of the intelligence-sharing relationship.