Officials in Washington are scrambling to account for the leaked identity of Britain’s deadliest suicide bomber in a decade after British authorities accused the United States of revealing the sensitive information — the latest instance of unauthorized disclosures undermining American credibility around the world.
Washington’s growing culture of leaks has come under intense scrutiny this month. Among the controversies were misleading accusations that President Trump inappropriately disclosed classified information to Russian officials within the White House, and the release from prison of former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who served four years for helping WikiLeaks produce one of the largest leaks of classified information in history.
Some officials scratch their heads at the surreal, anarchic aspects of the leak culture. Manning received cross-sex hormone therapy and female undergarments from the Army while in prison. And WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will soon start his sixth year living inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.
But consequences can be deadly. British Home Secretary Amber Rudd discussed these while addressing the suspected U.S. leak that jeopardized the police investigation into Monday’s bombing at a Manchester pop concert that killed at least 22 and wounded 119.
Fueled by a leak, U.S. broadcasters CBS and NBC named Salman Abedi as the suspected killer hours before Manchester police did. The TV networks cited U.S. sources.
“The British police have been very clear that they want to control the flow of information in order to protect operational integrity, the element of surprise, so it is irritating if it gets released from other sources,” Ms. Rudd told the BBC Wednesday. “I have been very clear with our friends that should not happen again.”
Across the American intelligence spectrum, officials are stepping up their defense of the United States.
“I don’t know if we can tell for certain where it came from,” a U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity. He noted that U.S. officials have not acknowledged making the leak.
The official said the situation was fluid during the hours after the attack and that it was unclear whether British authorities would have released Abedi’s name regardless of news reports.
“The U.S. intelligence community takes leaks of classified information very seriously,” Tim Barrett, a spokesman for Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, told The Times on Wednesday.
While discussing world threats Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. Coats stepped into the fray when Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, asked how damaging leaks are at the highest level.
“Lives are at stake in many instances, and leaks jeopardize those lives,” Mr. Coats replied.
At a nearby committee hearing on Russian meddling in the November presidential election, former CIA Director John O. Brennan called high-level leaks “appalling.”
The hearing addressed accusations that the Kremlin deployed hackers, WikiLeaks and a host of other advanced cyberwarfare techniques to influence the election result.
Within the anarchic world of hackers, computer security analysts say a legitimate “open source revolution” is underway. Essentially, they say, this means that it is nearly impossible to maintain secrecy in the online world.
In a sense, this translates into transparency. But from the perspective of government agencies, secrecy is power and the inability to keep information secret means a loss in power.
The issue has become so dire that CIA Director Mike Pompeo last month used the occasion of his first extended public remarks to compare WikiLeaks to “a hostile intelligence service” that works to undermine American democracy.
“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” Mr. Pompeo said.
In April, WikiLeaks triggered what was believed to be the largest leak of CIA documents in history when it published thousands of files detailing what it described as the agency’s hacking abilities, including tools it said the U.S. government used to break into computers, mobile phones and smart TVs.
Mr. Trump’s relationship with WikiLeaks and leaking is complicated. Reports surfaced last month that the Justice Department plans to soon bring criminal charges against Mr. Assange.
But during the election campaign after WikiLeaks attacked Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails, Mr. Trump tweeted, “WikiLeaks! I love WikiLeaks!”
The official said the Manchester attack was “emotionally horrible” for everyone involved, including investigators, because of the way the bombing targeted a particularly young and innocent population.
“I can imagine that our British counterparts were upset because they had elevated the threat level and had all these raids going on — they must have been concerned about other people in [Abedi’s] orbit,” the official said.
Another intelligence source told The Times that the U.S. intelligence community has a legitimate concern that Washington is getting a reputation as a town full of people with classified clearances who can’t keep their mouths shut — and that others, who may not have such clearances, can’t resist sharing information they hear with reporters.
The reality, according to the source, is that “overall we’re actually pretty good at keeping secrets. I don’t think you can judge the whole ability of the U.S. government to keep secrets based on one incident like this.”
The situation is compounded by the politically charged media landscape, which devours any bit of information and runs with it regardless of how sensitive it may be.