President Trump gained something Thursday he’s been craving: validation from America’s closest ally for his war on leaks.
Trump, a onetime fan of leaks who has spent much of his early term decrying them, vowed a “complete review” of possible intelligence leaks related to this week’s deadly terrorist attack at a Manchester concert.
The order was prompted by furor in Britain over publication in the New York Times of forensic photographs collected from the scene of the concert bombing in the English industrial city. Whether the photographs were provided by U.S. officials — who may have had access to shared intelligence through agreements with Britain — or came from some other source is not publicly known.
British Prime Minister Theresa May told reporters as she entered a NATO gathering Thursday that she planned to make clear to Trump that intelligence shared between law enforcement agencies “must remain secure” as part of the “special relationship” between the two countries.
“It’s our deepest defense and security partnership that we have,” she said. “Of course, that partnership is built on trust, and part of that trust is knowing that intelligence can be shared confidently.”
British officials have not cited specific harm to their investigation as a result of the published photos. Rather, Greater Manchester Chief Constable Ian Hopkins said they have caused “much distress for families that are already suffering terribly with their loss.”
In addition, British police agencies have complained about publication of other details from the investigation, including the name of the bomber and the bomber’s address, which they say may have impeded their search efforts. The publication of that information by several news organizations was less likely to have been a result of leaks by American officials, as the identity was known by media organizations, both U.S.- and British-based, before it was published, and the bomber’s neighborhood had been revealed in an early police news release.
But the issue has nonetheless threatened to roil the close diplomatic ties between the two countries. On Thursday, Manchester police reportedly decided temporarily to stop sharing information on their investigation with the U.S. until they received sufficient guarantees that leaks would stop.
Trump called the alleged leaks “deeply troubling” in a forceful statement reiterating that there is “no relationship we cherish more” than the one with Britain.
The statement promised to request “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.”
Meanwhile, British authorities nearly doubled estimates of the number of people injured in Monday’s bombing at the Manchester Arena at the conclusion of an Ariana Grande concert. In addition to 22 killed, the National Health Service said 116 people have been treated in hospitals for injuries, 23 of them critically wounded — well above the 59 previously reported.
The health service also sent an alert to England’s 27 major trauma centers, urging them to be prepared as Britain gears up for a three-day weekend. Britain fell silent for a minute on Thursday morning to pay tribute to the victims of the bombing as police raids, searches and arrests continued across the city. Authorities said they now have eight people in custody in connection with the attack, in which Salman Abedi detonated an explosive as children and adults filed out of the concert. Abedi died in the blast.
The New York Times published a statement on its website about the photographs it published. “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, as The Times and other media outlets have done following terrorist acts around the world, from Boston to Paris to Baghdad, and many places in between,” it said.
But Trump’s condemnation of leaking aimed more broadly than those photos. His statement repeated a general complaint that he has made on Twitter and in public speeches, particularly as his administration has come under growing scrutiny for its dealings with foreign countries and the FBI investigation over potential collusion between Russians and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.
“These leaks have been going on for a long time, and my administration will get to the bottom of this,” he said. “The leaks of sensitive information pose a grave threat to our national security.”
In a follow-up statement, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions stopped short of announcing an investigation, instead assuring that his office had “initiated appropriate steps to address these rampant leaks.”
During his presidential campaign, Trump had expressed admiration for leakers, saying that he loved WikiLeaks and that the group did the country a service by publishing internal campaign and Democratic Party emails that damaged Hillary Clinton’s electoral fortunes.
At one news conference in Florida, he even egged on Russia, which U.S. intelligence says has been the source of the hacking attacks that obtained the documents.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,’” he said, taunting Clinton over emails that she deemed personal and deleted from her private email account. (WikiLeaks never published emails from Clinton’s private server, which were not part of the hack that exposed messages between campaign and party officials.)
But Trump’s tone shifted abruptly after he won election, amid a slew of leaks that began flooding from his administration. The disclosures included revelations about his personal behavior in the White House, allegedly contentious or awkward conversations he has had with foreign leaders — including his own disclosure to visiting Russian envoys of classified information gathered by an ally — and potential interference in the FBI investigation of his campaign.
In January, just before his inauguration, Trump fumed at the intelligence community for allegedly leaking an unsubstantiated report asserting that Russians had gathered blackmail material against him and that his associates had met with Russian agents during the campaign.
“That’s something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do,” he said, blaming the intelligence community for the leaks, although there’s no evidence that news organizations that published the material got it from intelligence agencies.
Clashes between the U.S. news media and government over what is and is not appropriate to publish in a terrorism investigation predate Trump, of course.
Dan Kennedy, a media critic and journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston, pointed to the Obama administration’s pursuit of leakers, including a long legal battle aimed at compelling New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal confidential sources.
“It’s always more helpful to be able to pursue this kind of leak” — related to an ally’s security concern — “than it is to pursue a leak that is simply embarrassing,” Kennedy said.
Indeed, in condemning the alleged leak in the Manchester investigation, Trump received backing from Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the Burbank Democrat who is often one of his chief critics.
“If the U.S. disclosed information about Manchester obtained from the British before they were ready, they have every right to be furious,” Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on Twitter.
Leak prosecutions became much more common after the Sept. 11 attacks and accelerated during the Obama administration.
Legal experts say any prosecution of the British case would probably be for possible violations of the Espionage Act, a law passed in 1917, shortly after the U.S. entered World War I. The broadly written law makes it a crime to give any unauthorized secrets that the leaker “has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”
“The Espionage Act is infamously capacious and vague,” said Mary-Rose Papandrea, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
The far bigger issue, she said, would be to determine where the information came from — at least concerning basic information like the name and address of the bomber.
“It might be a third, fourth or fifth party,” she said. “It’s still possible to make that prosecution, but it’s obviously not an ideal scenario. Imagine arguing that case to a jury.”
Special correspondent Christina Boyle in London contributed to this report.