LONDON — President Trump on Thursday denounced U.S. leaks about Britain’s investigation of the Manchester terrorist bombing and asked the U.S. Justice Department and other agencies to launch a full investigation.
In a statement issued amid meetings in Brussels with leaders of NATO member nations, Trump responded to British outrage over the leaks by calling them “deeply troubling” and vowing to “get to the bottom of this.”
He added: “The leaks of sensitive information pose a grave threat to our national security. I am asking the Department of Justice and other relevant agencies to launch a complete review of this matter, and if appropriate, the culprit should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. There is no relationship we cherish more than the Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom.”
British indignation over the leaks of investigative material related to the Manchester bombing was expected to create a charged environment Thursday at a meeting between Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May.
May said Thursday morning she would “make clear” to Trump during their meeting at the NATO summit that “intelligence that is shared between our law enforcement agencies must remain secure.”
Leaks from the ongoing investigation — including the publication of crime-scene photos in the New York Times and the naming of the suspected bomber by U.S. broadcasters — have provoked ire from British officials.
The breaches could undermine the extremely close intelligence sharing between the United States and Britain.
Earlier Thursday in Brussels, Trump twice declined to answer a reporter’s questions about the leak controversy and British intelligence sharing. In a photo opportunity ahead of a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump simply stared at his questioner and mouthed the words, “Thank you.” He said the same thing when asked whether his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, should cooperate with U.S. investigations of contacts with Russian officials.
According to a British official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, British police investigating the Manchester attack have now decided to withhold information from the United States in the wake of the leaks.
“Greater Manchester Police hopes to resume normal intelligence relationships — a two-way flow of information — soon but is currently furious,” the BBC reported.
Greater Manchester Chief Constable Ian Hopkins said in a statement Thursday that the leaks published by the New York Times have caused “much distress for families that are already suffering terribly with their loss.”
British police chiefs across the country have also criticized the leaks in a highly unusual statement.
“We greatly value the important relationships we have with our trusted intelligence, law enforcement and security partners around the world,” said the National Police Chiefs’ Council in a statement. “When that trust is breached, it undermines these relationships, and undermines our investigations and the confidence of victims, witnesses and their families. This damage is even greater when it involves unauthorized disclosure of potential evidence in the middle of a major counterterrorism investigation.”
On Wednesday morning, Amber Rudd, Britain’s home secretary, said the leaks in the U.S. media were “irritating” and should not happen again.
Hours later, the New York Times published a series of detailed forensic photographs from the crime scene that showed, among other things, fragments of a blue backpack that may have contained the assailant’s bomb. They also included a graphic of the area where the bomb exploded, pinpointing where the victims’ bodies were found.
The New York Times on Thursday defended its reporting, saying in an emailed statement that “the images and information presented were neither graphic nor disrespectful of victims, and consistent with the common line of reporting on weapons used in horrific crimes.”
“We have strict guidelines on how and in what ways we cover sensitive stories,” the paper said. “Our coverage of Monday’s heinous attack has been both comprehensive and responsible.”
British authorities have not said that the leaks have hurt the probe. But some commentators have suggested that publishing the name of the suspected bomber could have compromised the investigation. Withholding of the name for longer could have allowed authorities to track down people who may have since gone to ground, they said.
There is a marked difference in the relationship between the press and the secret services in the United States and Britain. Here, the culture is much more closed and such leaks are more surprising.
John Lloyd, a media commentator, said it was also helpful to view the outrage in the context of Britain’s upcoming election. “The election may account for some of the grandstanding,” he said.
Without an election in the offing — Britons go to the polls June 8 — some politicians may have voiced their frustration “behind closed doors,” he said.
The growing frustration of British officials comes as allies are already smarting from Trump’s disclosure of classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador about an Islamic State threat.
“Everyone is very angry,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.
Referring to Rudd’s remarks, he said that the “Five Eyes relationship is crucial to U.K. intelligence and security, and for her to openly say how unhappy she is about this shows you how angry people are.” He noted that Rudd’s use of the word “irritating” should be seen from the lens of the British fondness for understatement.
Britain and the United States are members of the “Five Eyes” group (which also includes Canada, Australia and New Zealand) that allows close intelligence sharing.
But the overall transatlantic intelligence sharing relationship will endure, he said, “because they need each other — the links are far too tight to be broken.”
At a lower level, however, there could be an erosion of trust. “If I’m a cop in Manchester, I may first think, ‘Do I want this to go to everybody?’ if I’m wanting operational integrity,” Pantucci said.
This isn’t the first time that operational details in an ongoing investigation have come out in the United States.
Days after the London transit bombings in 2005, for instance, images of bomb components and the inside of a subway car were leaked in U.S. media.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said he complained to acting U.S. ambassador Lewis Lukens that the leaks were undermining the investigation.
“These leaks are completely unacceptable, and must stop immediately,” he said. “This behavior is arrogant and is undermining the investigation into the horrific attack on the city of Manchester.”
Lukens also condemned the leaks, telling the BBC that the messages coming out of Britain were “loud and clear.”
“These leaks are terrible,” he said. “Let me just say in the strongest possible terms that we condemn them and we are determined to investigate and to bring appropriate action.”
William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.