British and EU Spies Criticize American ‘Blabbermouths’ After Manchester Leaks

Manchester police
Armed police patrol the streets the morning after a terrorist attack, on May 23, in Manchester, England. An explosion occurred at Manchester Arena as concert goers were leaving the venue after Ariana Grande had performed on Monday night. Dave Thompson/Getty

Former British and Belgian intelligence chiefs have declared American officials to be “blabbermouths” after much of the key information leaked to the media following the bombing of a British concert venue on Monday night emerged from Washington. 

Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old British national of Libyan heritage, detonated an explosive device after an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena around 10.33 p.m., killing 22 people and injuring dozens. The information that followed initial media reports of the blast traced back to American sources. 

NBC News, in the hours following the blast, reported an initial death toll of 20 people, citing U.S. officials briefed by British authorities, who did not publicly disclose the estimates. Other publications followed suit in citing American officials, who also appeared to be receiving their information from the British. They reported the method of attack to be a suicide bombing. On Tuesday, NBC News and CBS News carried the identity of the attacker before British authorities had released official confirmation. Media reports citing the name and death toll later proved to be true. 

With the British government and its officials remaining tight-lipped for hours after U.S. media reports surfaced, as the investigation into the bomb blast continued, a question arose: Were the U.S. publications just quicker, smarter and more well-sourced than the British press? In the eyes of British and Belgian intelligence sources, the answer was no: It was rather the openness of the American security services that led to Britain’s Fleet Street elite being scooped by their colleagues across the Atlantic. 

A former British intelligence chief, who requested anonymity, tells Newsweek of U.S. sources, “They don’t understand the complexities of just blurting it out, and the reasons not to. They just think, Oh, I’ve got something to say, for their own personal aggrandizement quite often.” The former spook adds, “They just blabbermouth it and it’s really, really unhelpful,” calling the British “pretty disciplined” by comparison. 

In the eyes of some American officials, the identity of Abedi—who died at the scene—would likely have come out soon anyway. However, in an attack like the one in Manchester, the perpetrators are rarely working alone, instead being helped by a network surrounding them, experts say. “I can think of very few instances in the last 15 or 20 years where one man alone has built a bomb and then used it,” Jason Burke, author of The New Threat From Islamic Militancy, told Newsweek earlier on Tuesday. The release of information in the early stages after an attack can present security issues and hamper the work of security services operating in the country of attack, European intelligence officials say. 

“If you leak information concerning an ongoing investigation, certainly in the hours after the event, this is something that could be damageable for the ongoing investigation,” says a former Belgian intelligence chief, who also requested anonymity and expressed bemusement at the officials who publicly disclose details of an attack on an ally’s soil. 

“Leaking information it’s something on the level of intelligence services it’s not done. I think there is another kind of tradition in Europe than in the United States on that level,” he adds. 

Related: U.S. officials 'warned Israel' not to share sensitive intel with Trump 

Whether the leaks will hamper cooperation between the U.S. and its European ally is not yet known, but it may prove to be an embarrassing episode. The apparent impulse of U.S. officials to make the information public before the British security services do so is a thorny issue that London may raise with Washington when the Manchester investigation has played out. 

“Everybody got so annoyed about that. It’s usually officials who aren’t in the immediate chain of [information] exchange,” says the former British spy of past leaks from the American security services. “You want to try and make sure that the American agencies themselves only share it with officials who are able to keep it to themselves. That is far easier said than done.” 

Some U.S. officials also disagree with the leaking of information from a key ally. “If this is being leaked by the American side, it shouldn’t be. This is the Brits’ investigation and they should be letting the Brits be making any public announcements on this,” one State Department official tells Newsweek on condition of anonymity. 

It is not only the American security services who have been in the firing line recently for sharing sensitive information. President Donald Trump faced widespread criticism for appearing to leak top-secret intelligence, gathered by an allied nation on the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian ambassador during an Oval Office meeting earlier in May. 

U.S. officials later leaked that the ally in question was Israel. Israeli intelligence officials were said to be “boiling mad” at the leak, stating that they would never have given away U.S. intelligence. 

The disparity between Washington and organizations such as Israel’s Shin Bet and Mossad is clear in the eyes of British spies who have served at the highest level of the country’s shadowy organizations.

“In those countries, you don’t normally get the level of leaking that you get from Washington. “Washington is a particular case,” says the former British intelligence chief. He says there are “thousands” of people with top-secret clearance in the U.S. security apparatus, and, in a damning verdict, calls into question their professionalism. “They do not treat ‘top-secret,’ that sort of classification, with the same seriousness that we do.”