US president Donald Trump was forced to calm a growing row between UK and US intelligence services after a series of leaks from the Manchester bombing investigation that infuriated investigators and hurt grieving families.
British officials reacted with fury and cut off information sharing with US law enforcement agencies, putting the decades-old transatlantic intelligence relationship under strain.
Mr Trump said US justice officials would prosecute whoever was responsible for the leaks, which resulted in the publication of highly sensitive crime scene photos by the New York Times.
The terror threat level in the UK will remain at critical, Theresa May confirmed yesterday, as police raided several more properties and announced they had uncovered “important” evidence.
In a statement released ahead of a gathering of Nato leaders in Brussels, the US president said the leaks were “deeply troubling” and promised to “get to the bottom of this”.
His comments came after the Prime Minister issue an unprecedented public rebuke of the UK’s closest ally, announcing that she would use the meeting to “make clear to President Trump that intelligence that is shared between our law enforcement agencies must remain secure”.
Mr Trump said: “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.”
The president added: “There is no relationship we cherish more than the Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom.”
Publication of photos including images of blood-stained and charred bomb parts as well as fragments of the backpack used to carry the Manchester bomb came hours after Home Secretary Amber Rudd called the leaks “irritating” and said they should stop.
Updating the media on the investigation yesterday, Greater Manchester Police Chief Constable Ian Hopkins said the latest leak had “caused much distress” to families of the victims.
The leaks began within hours of the bombing in Manchester on Monday night, with US media reporting first that the explosion was a suicide bombing, then naming the perpetrator as Salman Abedi before Greater Manchester Police were ready to confirm his identity.
The New York Times also published a diagram showing where individual victims of Monday’s attack were standing in relation to the bomber.
With the Trump administration locked in conflict with the US intelligence community and facing damaging leaks almost daily since his sacking of former FBI director James Comey, there is speculation the row has been orchestrated to embarrass the president on the international stage.
A Whitehall source was quoted as saying that officials were “furious”.
The source said: “This is completely unacceptable. These images leaked from inside the US system will be distressing for victims, their families and the wider public.
“The issue is being raised at every relevant level by the British authorities with their US counterparts.”
Greater Manchester metro mayor Andy Burnham said that a decision had been taken early in the investigation to be cautious about putting information into the public domain and tweeted that he had complained to the acting US Ambassador about the leaks.
Mr Burnham added that the revelations were “arrogant, wrong and disrespectful”.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council condemned the revelations, saying it “undermines our investigations and the confidence of victims, witnesses and their families”.
Lord Carlile, the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, described the leaks as “very unusual and irresponsible” and called for those responsible to be “called to account”.
He said: “It damages decades of confidence between the UK and US services, the cohesion of the ‘Five Eyes’ group, and sharing of information with French, German and other security services.
“These leaks made yesterday a very bad day for national security in several countries, and those responsible should be called to account.”
Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Blair said the leak of images from the attack was a “grievous breach”, but added that something similar had happened after the London 7/7 bombings.
Lord Blair, who was head of the Metropolitan Police during the 2005 attacks, said: “I’m afraid it just reminds me exactly of what happened after 7/7 when the United States published a complete picture of the way the bombs in 7/7 had been made up.
“And we had the same protests. It’s a very grievous breach, but I’m afraid it’s the same as before.”
Congressman Adam Schiff, a senior member of the intelligence committee in the US House of Representatives, said: “If we gave up information that has interfered in any way with their investigation because it tipped off people in Britain – perhaps associates of this person that we identified as the bomber – then that’s a real problem and they have every right to be furious.”
Kurt Volker, a former US permanent representative to Nato and a former CIA analyst, said the leak was “unfortunate” and could be damaging to long-term security.
He said the leaked images revealed little crucial information but their release could harm the key relationship in fighting international terrorism
“If you are an allied intelligence service you are going to think twice about sharing something if you believe this could now be published in the New York Times, it could be released, it could be out there,” Mr Volker said.
The cut-off of intelligence sharing is understood to only affect law enforcement agencies such as the FBI, rather than between MI5 and MI6 and their US counterparts.
The New York Times defended its coverage, saying: “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. Our coverage of Monday’s horrific attack has been both comprehensive and responsible.”
During questions at the Scottish Parliament, Nicola Sturgeon said the leaks were “completely unacceptable” and backed the decision to temporarily cut off intelligence sharing.
The First Minister said: “The ability of countries to share intelligence confidentially and securely is one of the things that helps keep us safe, and the importance of that and the importance of having trusted arrangements such as through the Five Eyes system cannot be overestimated.
“So I do share the anger and disbelief of the UK government that we have seen sensitive details from this ongoing live investigation leaked to the media in America.”