It’s not the first time sensitive information about an ongoing British counter-terrorism investigation has leaked out in US media but, make no mistake, the decision to stop sharing information about the Manchester attack with America is unprecedented.
In July 2005, I was the Head of News at Scotland Yard and strategic communications lead for all blue light services in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings. We had a good relationship with the UK media, briefing them as much as we could and having conversations where necessary to explain why we couldn’t say more at that time. Despite the huge pressures on everybody – police and media – to find out what had happened and why, there was restraint, mutual respect and a bit of give and take.
A few weeks into the investigation, I was sitting at home when I got a very angry call from the head of the Anti-Terrorist Branch. He had become aware that photographs shared with the American’s intelligence services had been given to ABC News. He was furious.
We tried to persuade ABC News not to broadcast them, but our efforts failed. Unsurprisingly, we were then in a difficult position with our own media. We asked them not to publish or broadcast this material as it could jeopardise the investigation and any future prosecutions of others who might be involved, but, inevitably once the information was out there, our pleas fell on deaf ears and the UK media published too.
Despite this, and the problems it caused, I can recall no discussion of stopping sharing information with the Americans or other partner countries because of this incident. Why not? Because we didn’t believe we could afford to at a time when intelligence sharing was so crucial and an important tool in the prevention of further attacks and to identify those involved.
The sharing of intelligence with overseas law enforcement agencies is normal practice. When something like 7/7 or Manchester occurs it is important that information and photographs are shared so that all those involved in the fight against terrorism understand the latest techniques being adopted and applied by the terrorists. Have they used something new or something different? Have we seen this before? Is it a new explosive or a new method of deployment? This gives those agencies involved in the fight against terrorism a better chance of trying to prevent future atrocities.
However for one of those agencies to give confidential information to a news organisation is a disgrace. Intelligence, trust and confidence come together in tackling terrorism. By leaking information to the New York Times and others, the American intelligence service has damaged that significantly.
I fervently hope that the UK authorities get the assurances they need swiftly – that means hours or days – that such leaks will not happen again. Ultimately, we cannot afford NOT to share information with our partners and the Americans in particular. They have a massive global counter-terrorism operation; they are plugged, literally and metaphorically, into places and people that we are not. We need to know anything that they know which might be relevant to Salman Abedi. We know there is a Libyan connection to the bombing in Manchester, perhaps a trail to Syria or across Europe too. The sooner that two way flow of information is running again the better.
On the subject of two way flows of information, we had a good relationship with the UK media throughout 7/7 and beyond. It is a fact that when a major incident like the Manchester bombing occurs, the media can deploy significant investigative resources to knock on doors and speak to people who may not be willing to speak to the police. This is their job and to be respected. I’ve long been concerned that one of the major unintended consequences of the Leveson Inquiry would be to curtail two way communication between the police and media at times when good relationships matter the most – when vital information need to be shared or corroborated. Let’s hope I’m proved wrong.
UPDATE: I’m pleased to see that information sharing is now going ahead again after the UK got the assurances it needed. Hopefully the pause will not have had a significant impact on the investigation.
Associate Director of Development and Crisis CommunicationsChris Webb is Associate Director of Development and Crisis Communications at Crest Advisory, former Head of News at Scotland Yard, and led the blue light communications on 7 July 2005.