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What the Manchester attack leaks mean for the UK-US intelligence-sharing relationship

Just a few hours after the British home secretary, Amber Rudd, issued a stern warning to the US government and intelligence officials about leaking sensitive information, they were at it again.

US news outlets had already published the name of the suspect in the Manchester attack before the UK authorities were prepared to make it public. And now not only had more intelligence information been released about the suspects family and their movements, but the New York Times published photographs of bomb fragments and the tattered remains of a backpack.

But while this latest storm over the UK-US relationship and intelligence sharing in the wake of the Manchester attack is far from unique, these leaks are of a different order.

They indicate the febrile state of the administration in Washington. And when the White House gives the appearance of being cavalier with shared intelligence, it is unsurprising when nameless officials ape the commander-in-chief for their own advantage.

Perhaps inevitably, they resulted in the suspension of information sharing – even if this suspension was just for a matter of hours and limited to this single investigation. And in these times of shifting sands, the prime minister, Theresa May, went from defending the Trump administration’s approach to intelligence sharing to confronting the US president over leaks – all in the space of a single week.

But, for all the air of despondency the Manchester investigation leaks have generated, any damage in the UK-US security relationship is likely to be fleeting. Both countries have gained too much from the relationship. And more than anything, the leaks demonstrate just how quickly actionable intelligence flows between them.

A brief history of leaks

The challenge of effective international co-operation and intelligence sharing has long been a subject fraught with controversy. And it is testament to the durability of the relationship that it has weathered many such storms for the best part of a century.

This prize was not easy won, and it has proven very difficult to emulate reliable intelligence sharing – even where terrorism is at issue. Well into the 20th century many states would zealously guard intelligence. And when information was shared it would be on an ad hoc basis, for geo-political advantage.

For one group of countries, intelligence sharing during World War II changed this approach. The the so-called “Five Eyes” countries – the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – recognised the value of shared intelligence to the allied victory. And, in light of the looming threat of the Cold War, these countries opted to maintain their sharing of signals and communications intelligence under the UKUSA Agreement, which in 1947 set up a top secret, post-war arrangement for sharing intelligence.

But even between these close “Five Eyes” partners, this arrangement did not stop horse-trading of other sources of information – and tensions inevitably arose. To mitigate these problems the partnership developed the “control principle”. This meant that the country which produced the original intelligence could determine whether it was shared with countries outside the partnership, or even if it was to be made public.

The bartering of secrets

That the “Five Eyes” system was maintained in the aftermath of the Cold War was not the product of mere habit. In an era of diffuse and emergent threats there was even – amid talk of a “new world order” – a concerted effort to extend intelligence sharing. And yet, all too often in the wake of terrorist attacks it emerged that different countries’ security agencies held vital information which, if pieced together, could have averted an atrocity.

So, in response to early instances of al-Qaeda related terrorism, Article 15 of the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings obliged signatory states to cooperate in the prevention of terrorist attacks. This was formed in 1997 and required countries to share “accurate and verified information” in such instances.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks the United Nations Security Council took things even further – enjoining all UN member states to “increase co-operation”. This measure aimed to transform international intelligence sharing in response to terrorism in the hope of preventing the next 9/11. And more importantly, put an end to the bartering of secrets seen within the “Five Eyes” system.

Close to home

But without a mechanism for enforcing co-operation, barter has continued to predominate within counter-terrorism partnerships forged after 9/11. For example, Saudi Arabia threatened to terminate intelligence sharing with the UK if a Serious Fraud Office investigation into bribery surrounding the arms company BAE was not halted in 2006. And, in a similar vein, security cooperation with Pakistan is only maintained in exchange of foreign aid – making it clear that intelligence remains a valuable commodity.

Even established security partnerships, such as the “Five Eyes” arrangement, have struggled to adapt to this new paradigm – in part because the “control principle” does not sit easily with a legal duty to share intelligence which might prevent a terrorist attack, but also because an increased risk of leaks is part of the price for enhanced co-operation.

So, despite the US and UK’s seemingly “back-to-normal” working relationship, in a world of imperfect intelligence the Manchester investigation leaks risk exacerbating the tendency of intelligence agencies to want to keep as much information as possible close to home.

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