On May 22nd in Manchester a 22-year-old man blew himself up at the Manchester Arena in the UK following a show by Ariana Grande. So far it has killed 22 people, mainly children and teenagers. The international outcry has been huge, not only due to the loss of life, but because it targeted the most vulnerable in society. Since the explosion there has been an extensive police investigation looking into the potential reasons why this took place, at the background of the attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, and whether he was acting alone or if there is a wider network that could commit further attacks.
In another story on Tuesday 21st March, the UK and US governments announced a ban on laptops and tablets in all hand luggage on board direct flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia. The idea behind this was that ISIS had been attempting to hide explosive material inside and attempting to bring down planes. This was rumored to have been due to intelligence gathered that suggested this could be a threat and that it was an idea that ISIS were acting upon.
Information about both of these was given to the US intelligence service and hence the White House, by the British and Israelis respectively. The information about the laptops came from an Israeli source embedded in ISIS somewhere, who managed to get the information out to the Israelis, who then shared that information with the Americans. Donald Trump then discussed this highly classified information, given the highest security classification, with the Russian Foreign Minister in a meeting at the White House, creating an international crisis and blowing the cover of the Israeli agent who had infiltrated ISIS.
Only a week later, information about the bombing in Manchester was leaked from the White House after they had been given access to information from the police in the UK. This included giving out the name of the subject well before the UK police wanted it released, despite being under strict instructions keep the name secret. This caused an angry response from Amber Rudd, the UK Home Secretary, who said ‘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 if it gets released from other sources and I have been very clear with our friends that should not happen again.’ After this severe rebuke the White House continued to leak, including pictures of the bomb covered in blood, giving away vital investigation information that is likely to have an impact on the investigation moving forward.
This isn’t a good idea for international relations, especially when you consider that the UK and Israel are, arguably, the US’ closest allies. It may have more widespread ramifications too, with the UK Prime Minister saying that she would ‘raise the issue’ with Donald Trump. This is political code for warning the US to get its house in order.
Security services need to be able to share data with their international counterparts in order to be successful in what they do. It may be that somebody in their midst has links to criminals in another country, so if there is information from that other country, it will be essential for them to know. This is one of the key elements of the much touted ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US - the ability to share data for mutual protection.
The actions of the last two weeks will have done severe damage to this relationship, as if data cannot be protected by the US leadership, it becomes more of a risk to share this information with them. If the White House had said beforehand that they will share this information publicly, the UK would never have shared this information. Now that it has been extensively shared in the most public way possible, it doesn’t take too much imagination to believe that the UK and Israel will now be more reticent to share any data with the US. It doesn’t matter if the US can also provide valuable information back if the initial data is going to be leaked to exactly the wrong people before security forces have a chance to act on it. This has led to many media outlets reporting that the UK police force has actually stopped sharing information about this investigation with the US intelligence agencies, with the Guardian claiming that police chiefs in the UK are ‘furious’ with the leaks.
What’s clear is that the White House needs to sort itself out or further data sharing may be impacting. Much of this may come down to a lack of leadership within the government, with 554 positions requiring confirmation, but as of April 27 only 22 had been confirmed, with 473 of the positions not even having somebody nominated for confirmation. That there is so little leadership across the board means that there is nobody overseeing or monitoring who may be leaking.
It is not clear how long it will take to get all of these appointments in place, but one thing that is, is that the US needs to sort out how they deal with classified data quickly, or it could do considerable damage.