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How leaks can affect an unfolding counterterrorism investigation

May 25, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s been a day for mourning in Manchester, England, and for new police raids in the concert bombing that killed 22 people.

Police say they have very important clues to what drove Salman Abedi and 10 other suspects to potential — and to other suspects.

Ciaran Jenkins of Independent Television News has our report.

CIARAN JENKINS: At 11:00 a.m. in the spring sunshine, Manchester fell silent, united in grief.

For a moment, remembrance outshone the darkness of terror. This was for the dead, the injured, their families and friends. At dawn, another raid a mile from the Didsbury Mosque, where Salman Abedi worshiped.

They’re closing in on his movements. On the night of the attack, he was in this rented property police raided yesterday. Police say they have made significant arrests, eight in total. This man was apprehended yesterday in Wigan. A property there is being searched tonight, as well as two other properties in Manchester.

But investigators face an unwelcomed obstacle. The New York Times published photos of bomb components from the scene of the blast, the latest leak from U.S. intelligence.

IAN HOPKINS, Chief Constable, Greater Manchester Police: Last night, the family liaison officer shared with those families the fact that intelligence had been leaked and published in The New York Times. It is absolutely understandable the distress and upset that this caused to those families, who are already suffering, as everyone can imagine.

CIARAN JENKINS: The queen today saw for herself the children Salman Abedi deemed terror targets.

QUEEN ELIZABETH II, United Kingdom: And you had enjoyed the concert?

GIRL: Yes, it was really good.

CIARAN JENKINS: She spoke with 15-year-old Millie. And to 14-year-old Evie, she made her own disgust with the attacker known.

QUEEN ELIZABETH II: Very wicked.

CIARAN JENKINS: But the terror network who did this is still being hunted. The threat level remains at its highest. And major English hospitals have been told to prepare for similar attacks.

As of this afternoon, you will see armed police on trains nationwide for the first time. Britain remains under imminent threat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now we examine the diplomatic fight that’s broken out over the leaked photos of the bomb detonated in Manchester.

William Brangham takes it from here.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: U.K. officials are so incensed over those photos being shared that the police stopped sharing information with the U.S. for a time today.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Theresa May met with President Trump at the NATO summit in Brussels. Going in, she said she wants to maintain the special security partnership with the U.S.

THERESA MAY, British Prime Minister: That partnership is built on trust. And part of that trust is knowing that intelligence can be shared confidently. And I will be making clear to President Trump today that intelligence shared between law enforcement agencies must remain secure.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The president, in turn, issued his own statement condemning the leaks. He asked the Justice Department and other agencies to launch a — quote — “complete investigation.”

For more on this, and the broader investigation into the bombing, I’m joined now by Ali Soufan. He’s a former FBI special agent who handled several major terrorism investigations, including the 2001 al-Qaida bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. He now runs a consulting group and is author of the book “Anatomy of Terror.”

Welcome back to the NewsHour.

ALI SOUFAN, Former FBI Counterterrorism Interrogator: Thank you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: From an investigator’s point of view, help me understand why the British would be so angry about these photos of these bomb-making parts, why those being out there would bother them so much.

ALI SOUFAN: Well, they have an ongoing investigation.

And this investigation is way more than an act that already happened. There is an imminent threat that’s unfolding in the U.K. You want to protect your investigative leads, number one. You need to protect the integrity of your evidence and of your investigation.

And when you’re trying to catch terrorists who are still on the loose, you know, you don’t want them to know what you know. So, as an investigator, you know — and it happened to me personally — you get so frustrated when you see sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, people hindering your investigation.

So I don’t blame the investigators on the ground to be really upset about leaks, about any investigative leaks that have been published either in papers or broadcast on television.

I am just not sure they can put all the blame on the United States. I think that’s very unfair. And I think, even in the pictures in The New York Times, I believe, in The New York Times’ story, they said that they got access to them from British law enforcement sources.

I think leaks are really bad in this situation. It’s not only reckless. It’s dangerous when you have terrorists still on the loose. But to blame everything on the people here in the United States, I think it’s not fair. I think they need to do a further investigation to know who’s leaking what to whom.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Just so I’m clear on this, the concern would be that let’s just say the suspects in this case were to see those photographs. They would somehow know exactly what amount of evidence the police had in their custody, and that might then lead them to think, oh, they’re much closer to getting me than I thought.

ALI SOUFAN: Well, first of all, I think the British were really upset about leaking the name of the suicide bomber.

Maybe, as an investigator, I don’t want the name to be out, I want them to know that — I want them to think that I’m still in the dark, so I can have the advantage in identifying his friends, his support network, people who probably are working with him or supported him or aid him.

You know, so I wanted to have the upper hand in these kind of things. As for other evidence that’s collected from the scene, they will be watching, and they will be hearing our analysis of it. And maybe they will even know how to do it better.

I remember, in some of the stories, there was some analytical pieces about what’s wrong with the device, what’s wrong with the detonator. We have to be very careful, especially when you have an ongoing investigation unfolding, so dangerous to our partners in the U.K., that they raised the threat level in the country to critical, which is the third time they did that in, like, 10 years.

So we have to be very careful, and we have to respect the circumstances on the ground, help them protect the integrity of their investigation, but also aid them to arrest and apprehend anyone who might be involved in the attack in Manchester or probably another imminent attack that might be taking place.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: ISIS, as you know, took credit for this. And some have theorized that ISIS will encourage more and more attacks like this as they lose more and more territory and fighters in Syria and Iraq.

Do you believe that assessment? Do you think that this is a sign of ISIS’ strength or is this a sign of its weakness?

ALI SOUFAN: Well, it’s definitely a sign of both.

I mean, you know, ISIS is losing territory in Syria and Iraq. ISIS is losing the so-called caliphate. They always bragged it’s (INAUDIBLE) which means remaining and expanding. Now it’s definitely not remaining and absolutely not expanding.

So they are trying to inspire people to do terrorist attacks around the world. And we have seen that in the United States. We have seen that in Europe. Now, what level of support, what level of coordination and direction ISIS had with this Manchester bombing yet to be seen.

There are a lot of unknowns in this. But, for example, as we have seen in the United States, ISIS claimed responsibility for attacks that they had nothing to do with whatsoever, just because they believed they might inspire that attack.

So now we’re seeing — with these kind of attacks, we’re seeing the boundaries, organizational boundaries, becoming more and more blurry, and the threat is a message. And that message is the same. Remember, ISIS used to be a branch of al-Qaida. ISIS came out of al-Qaida.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Right.

ALI SOUFAN: So, ideologically speaking, they are the same.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Ali Soufan, thank you very much.

ALI SOUFAN: Thank you.

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