New developments, unforeseen and unwelcome to the British government, have emerged in the wake of Monday’s bombing in Manchester. The name of the suspect, Salman Abedi, was made public on May 23rd, just hours after the attack—sooner than is customary in such incidents, and much sooner, it turned out, than the authorities had planned. The reason for this haste became clear; the British had shared information with colleagues in the United States, who in turn passed it on to the media. Abedi was named by CBS, NBC, and the New York Times. British authorities then had no option but to follow suit, although even then they waited two hours before naming Abedi.
The principle at stake is clear: never let your enemy know what you know. In particular, do not let him know how much you know and when you came to know it. In the case of Manchester, there was speculation, soon after the explosion, that the bomber had not been working alone, and that his actions would have required a network of associates. Might they have fled, once they realized that Abedi’s name had entered the public domain, and that the British police and security services were therefore on the trail of the network? In other words, could the actions of American officials have impeded or compromised the investigation?
The following morning, May 24th, the British Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, speaking to the BBC, expressed her displeasure at the leak. “The British police have been very clear they want to control the flow of information in order to protect operational integrity—the element of surprise,” she said. “So, it is irritating if it gets released from other sources, and I’ve been very clear with our friends that that should not happen again.”
It happened again. Yesterday, the Times published detailed information about the bomb that was used in Manchester. Photographs show scraps of the backpack that was believed to have housed the device. The paper also released images of what may have been the detonator, and of metal fragments, including nuts and a screw, that had been packed around the explosive. This was, again, potentially damaging to the inquiry, because the components of the bomb could help to lead investigators toward its manufacturer.
The leak was seen in Britain as doubly insensitive, because the families of the victims could now learn, in agonizing detail, about the manner in which their loved ones had died on Monday night. Most of the photographs in the Times showed smears of blood on the floor. (The Times released a statement saying that the information it presented was “neither graphic nor disrespectful of victims, and consistent with the common line of reporting on weapons used in horrific crimes, as The Times and other media outlets have done following terrorist acts around the world, from Boston to Paris to Baghdad, and many places in between.”)
The authorities in Manchester are said to be “furious” at these disclosures; a government source spoke of “disbelief and astonishment.” The anger was primarily directed not at the Times but at American officials, within law enforcement, who may have seen fit to share the information. Representative Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, confirmed that the decision to release specific details was for the British, rather than the Americans, to take. “If that is something we did, I think that’s a real problem,” he said. Lewis Lukens, the chargé d’affaires and acting Ambassador at the U.S. Embassy in London, has now added his own censure, in an interview with the BBC: “These leaks were reprehensible, they are distressing, we unequivocally condemn them.”
On Thursday morning, the BBC reported that the Greater Manchester Police will no longer be sharing information on the bombing inquiry with their American counterparts. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, is travelling to Brussels to attend the NATO summit. There she will meet with President Trump, with whom she is expected to raise the issue of the leaks. Given the recent revelation that the President himself may have shared classified information about ISIS, given to him by Israeli intelligence, with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, today’s meeting may be a delicate one.