The Manchester attack revealed crucial differences in how the British and American press operate

As questions continue to be asked of MI5, it's worth reflecting on how the press treats intelligence services – on both sides of the Atlantic

May 30, 2017
With Trump as president, the US press seem to be operating on a system of leak first, ask later. Photo: Wikimedia commons
With Trump as president, the US press seem to be operating on a system of leak first, ask later. Photo: Wikimedia commons

In the aftermath of the suicide bombing in Manchester a week ago, important questions are being asked about Britain’s intelligence services, their liaison with US intelligence, and the way press on both sides of the Atlantic reports on such matters.

Britain’s Security Service (MI5) is understood to have been warned about the man who last week killed 22 people, and injuring 64, at a concert in Manchester Arena. Families of the victims, as well as broader public, will rightly demand to know how it was that MI5 apparently missed intelligence warning about the attack.

At the same time, information has emerged about the alarming scale of the terrorist threat facing Britain. MI5 has reportedly identified 23,000 Islamist extremists living in Britain as potential terrorist attackers; of those, 3,000 individuals are judged to pose an immediate threat; MI5 and the police are monitoring them in 500 active operations.

The Manchester attacker was apparently among the larger group of 20,000 people previously subject to enquiries, still categorised as posing a “residual risk”, but no longer under active surveillance. In the two months since the terror attack on Westminster, MI5 is understood to have disrupted an unprecedented five terror plots.

To put this in context, in the three years before 2016, Britain’s security and intelligence services disrupted 12 Islamist terror attacks, which, because they were thwarted, passed by largely unnoticed by the public.

Leaks in the American press

Britain’s initial counter-terrorism efforts to track the terror network behind the Manchester attack was hindered, not helped, by its closest intelligence ally, the United States. As would be expected, British authorities shared sensitive operational intelligence on the Manchester attack with their US intelligence counterparts—who, understandably, were trying to establish if there was a threat to the US

However, US intelligence sources were soon leaking details of the Manchester attack to the US media, which published information about the bomber’s identity mere hours after the attack. By Wednesday morning, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, had issued a stern rebuke to the US government about the American media leaking information before British authorities were ready for it to be released.

Rudd’s rebuke had little effect: the steady drip of leaks in the US soon turned into a torrent. Later that day, the New York Times published photographs of the bomb’s remnants, including the bomber’s shredded backpack, shrapnel, and the detonator used. The pictures revealed the bomb’s sophistication, which soon led commentators to suggest that bomber had help constructing it—that he was not a lone wolf, but part of a network.

Whitehall intelligence officials were reportedly furious about these leaks. Quite apart from distress potentially caused to victims’ families, disclosing details about the bomber posed an obvious security threat, possibly alerting others in the bomber’s network and removing the element of surprise that British police needed after the attack.

Time will show whether those in the network—eleven people have now been detained—went to ground after the US leaks.

Why British newspapers toed the line

In a remarkable move, on Wednesday, Manchester police decided to withhold intelligence sharing from US law enforcement on the grounds that the “trust” underpinning that relationship had been breached.

Suggestions that this influenced broader intelligence-sharing relations between Britain and America are likely misplaced; they withheld intelligence from US law enforcement agencies, believed to be source of the leaks, not US intelligence agencies. After the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, US police disclosed information that British authorities did not want publicised. The same may have happened last week.

US disclosures about the Manchester attack will add to increasing international fears about intelligence leaks from President Trump’s administration. During a NATO meeting on Thursday, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, raised the issue in person with President Trump, who, in a statement, promised to find and prosecute those leaking, and emphasised the importance of the special relationship between Britain and America. At the time of writing, Manchester police have resumed intelligence sharing with their US counterparts.

Watching news of the Manchester attack unfold from three thousand miles away, in the United States, there was soon an obvious question: whether there was a moratorium on British media reporting details about it. Historically, in extreme cases, the British government has issued official requests to British news editors not to publish or broadcast specific items on grounds of national security.

The system for doing so, the DSMA-notice (Defence and Security Media Advisory Notice) list—previously known as, and still commonly referred to, the D-Notice list—is a peculiarly British arrangement, some would say fudge, between national security and press freedom: a not quite secret, yet not quite public, arrangement. Unlike contempt of court laws in the UK, it does not legally bar news editors from publishing details, but instead is based on mutual trust. It seems to have been on the basis of this mutual trust that British newspapers and broadcast media—unlike their American counterparts—initially held off on publishing the attacker’s name.

An increasing problem

The disparity between British and US media reporting of the Manchester attack highlights a problem only likely to increase in the future: how to regulate reporting on national security issues in a free society, with a free press, in the digital age. With the world’s increasing interconnectivity, in which we can receive news from outlets all over the world to our phones, and even watches, previous arrangements to regulate British press reporting seem increasingly anachronistic. There were similar developments last year when a court injunction prevented British press naming an allegedly adulterous celebrity, but that individual’s identity was soon available online from foreign news outlets.

What can explain the motivation of those leaking information from inside the US intelligence community? History shows each leaker has his or her own reasons. Some have lofty ideals, as whistle-blowers, others are careless. The porous nature of the US intelligence community is probably not helped by its sheer size, spanning 16 different agencies. The disclosures made by the NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, revealed the enormous amounts of highly sensitive data, involving international partners like Britain, to which US officials have access.

However, something else seems at play with the present leaks: since Trump’s inauguration, public concern about his links with Russia, together with his open hostility to his own intelligence community, has created a culture in which leaks are not only accepted, but as many see it, required. At a time when Britain’s counter-terrorist operations face unprecedented challenges, last week US leaks harmed America’s closest intelligence partner.