According to a report, police hunting the terror network behind the Manchester Arena bombing have stopped passing information to the US on the investigation as a major transoceanic row erupts over leaks of key evidence in the US.
Downing Street was not behind any decision by Greater Manchester police to stop sharing information with US intelligence, a No 10 source said, stressing that it was important police were allowed to take independent decisions.
“This is an operational matter for police,” a No 10 spokesman said. The police and the Home Office refused to comment on the BBC report. It is understood that there is no blanket ban on intelligence-sharing between the US and the UK. Relations between the US and UK security services, normally extremely close, have been put under strain by the scale of the leaks from US officials to the American media.
Theresa May is expected to confront Donald Trump over the stream of leaks of crucial intelligence when she meets the US president at a Nato summit in Brussels on Thursday.
British officials were infuriated on Wednesday when the New York Times published forensic photographs of sophisticated bomb parts that UK authorities fear could complicate the expanding investigation into the lethal blast in which six further arrests have been made in the UK and two more in Libya. It was the latest of a series of leaks to US journalists that appeared to come from inside the US intelligence community, passing on data that had been shared between the two countries as part of a long-standing security cooperation.
A senior Whitehall source said: “These images from inside the American system are clearly distressing to victims, their families and other members of the public. Protests have been lodged at every relevant level between the British authorities and our US counterparts. They are in no doubt about our huge strength of feeling on this issue. It is unacceptable.”
Whitehall sources reported a sense of deflation among UK security staff at the amount of detail coming out of America. The UK had shared the material with US police and intelligence in expectation it would remain secret. The amount released is hampering at least part of the investigation, they believe.
Police chiefs also criticized the leaking of information from the investigation. A national counter-terrorism policing spokesperson said: “We greatly value the important relationships we have with our trusted intelligence, law enforcement and security partners around the world.
“When that trust is breached it undermines these relationships, and undermines our investigations and the confidence of victims, witnesses and their families. This damage is even greater when it involves unauthorized disclosure of potential evidence in the middle of a major counter-terrorism investigation.”
Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, added yet more criticism, saying the leaks were arrogant and disrespectful.
The government does not believe the president is directly responsible for the potentially compromising leaks; but May will raise her concerns with him at the Nato summit where she will push for the military alliance to join the coalition against Islamic State.
The images published by the US newspaper revealed that the device that killed 22 people used by Salman Abedi had been made with “forethought and care”, raising questions for investigators about how it had been constructed and by whom.
Abedi had carried a metal box containing “well packed” explosives, metal nuts and screws in a box probably inside a Karrimor rucksack, the leaked details showed. The device was powerful enough for shrapnel to penetrate metal doors and to scar brick walls. Abedi detonated the bomb with his left hand.
It showed the force of the explosion was such that his torso was ripped from the rest of his body and propelled across the foyer and that most of those killed were in a circle around the bomber.
Only hours earlier Amber Rudd, the home secretary, had rebuked the US security services for leaking the bomber’s name to American media before it had been made public in Britain, but her warnings appeared to have had no impact.
“I have been very clear with our friends that that should not happen again,” Rudd had said.
Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, was asked by reporters in Brussels ahead of Thursday’s meeting of Nato leaders about the apparent leaks by US officials of intelligence regarding the Manchester terrorist attack.
He said: “Sharing intelligence is of great importance. Sharing intelligence is based on trust and we have seen in Nato over many many years that we have been able to share intelligence in a good way and that has been of great importance to the alliance and for all allies.”
Stoltenberg said he was unable to comment further on the issue as he “did not know what actually happened”. He added that it was a bilateral issue between the US and the UK.
Stoltenberg also told reporters that leaders would agree at Thursday’s meeting to enhance Nato’s contribution in the fight against terrorism with the organisation formerly joining the coalition fighting Isis to improve coordination between the states involved. A new cell is to be established at Nato’s HQ to improve “how we share intelligence, including on foreign fighters”, Stoltenberg said.
Ian Blair, the former Metropolitan police commissioner during the 2005 London underground bombings on 7/7, said his investigation was also troubled by leaks from US intelligence.
Blair said he was sure the leaks had “nothing to do with Trump” given that similar leaks had happened during his own time investigating a terror attack.
“I’m afraid this reminds me exactly of what happened after 7/7, when the US published a complete picture of the way the bombs had been made up. We had the same protests.
“It’s a different world in how the US operates in the sense of how they publish things. And this is a very grievous breach but I’m afraid it’s the same as before.”
Blair said he thought the government was right to raise the threat level to critical but said the security services should not bear too much of the criticism for not keeping watch on Abedi, given the sheer numbers on the agencies’ watch list.
“I remember the dilemmas when I was commissioner, running through the different priority targets and understanding that you can only cover so many of them,” he said.
“The bombings outside the Tiger Tiger nightclub, on the day Gordon Brown became prime minister, these were pediatricians from Edinburgh. They had never been on any watch list. It is a difficult situation.”