The claim was repeated by the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, on Thursday and dismissed as “utterly ridiculous” by a GCHQ spokesperson.
The spokesperson added in a statement: “Recent allegations made by media commentator judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”
This week, Napolitano, Fox News judicial analyst, claimed during an interview on the network that three intelligence sources confirmed to him that the Obama administration used GCHQ to spy on Trump so that there would be “no American fingerprints on this”.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, quoted Napolitano’s allegation in an effort to validate Trump’s unfounded claim that Obama tapped his phones last year.
British and American intelligence agencies cooperate closely. Along with their counterparts from Australia, New Zealand and Canada, they are members of the Five Eyes, which all work together on intelligence. According to documents released by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, British officials allowed their US counterparts to store and analyse British citizens’ internet and email records. And Snowden also revealed that America’s National Security Agency paid £100m to GCHQ in secret.
Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats – the junior partner in the last British coalition government – said Trump was “compromising the vital UK-US security relationship to try to cover his own embarrassment”.
Trump started the political firestorm in a series of tweets in early March, when he accused Obama of tapping his phones and called his predecessor a “bad (or sick) guy”. US officials called the allegation groundless.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Trump tweeted on 4 March.
The president finds himself increasingly alone in his defence of his wiretapping claims. On Thursday, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate intelligence committee joined their counterparts on the House intelligence committee in the conclusion that they had seen no evidence to support the president’s accusation.
During the briefing, Spicer said Trump “stands by it” and emphasised, as he has attempted to do in recent days, that the president was referring broadly to wiretapping as a range of surveillance-related activities. Trump made a similar argument in a Wednesday night interview on Fox News, telling the interview host, Tucker Carlson, that the word wiretap “covers surveillance and many other things”.
He also told Carlson that the administration would submit evidence of his claim to the House intelligence panel “very soon”, adding: “You’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.”
In the same interview, he wrongly cited a New York Times report in January about intercepted communications and financial records concerning Trump associates and Russian officials as supporting his claim. Asked why he had not relied on US intelligence for a claim with extraordinary legal implications, Trump offered a quixotic reply: “Because I don’t want to do anything that’s going to violate any strength of an agency.”
|Agency says ‘allegations … about GCHQ being asked to conduct “wiretapping” against the then president-elect are nonsense’. Photograph: GCHQ/PA|
Britain: White House says it won’t repeat claims that a British agency wiretapped Trump
LONDON — The British government said Friday that the White House has promised not to repeat claims that Britain’s main surveillance agency spied on Donald Trump, in what appears to be an attempt to smooth ruffled feathers on this side of the Atlantic.
The intervention followed an extraordinary statement by the Government Communications Headquarters, the British eavesdropping agency known as GCHQ, which slapped down allegations that the Obama administration used it to spy on Trump.
At a news briefing Friday, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said: “We have received assurances from the White House that these allegations would not be repeated.” The spokesman would not confirm reports in the British media that the White House had apologized to Britain.
GCHQ is the British equivalent of the National Security Agency, and it usually remains tight-lipped on allegations related to intelligence matters. Its normal practice is to neither confirm nor deny claims.
Not this time.
“Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct 'wire tapping' against the then President Elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored,” GCHQ said in a statement.
The agency’s public denial followed a contentious news briefing in Washington on Thursday in which White House press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that Trump stands by his explosive charge that President Barack Obama spied on him during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Spicer, however, has attempted to soften Trump’s initial allegation, saying that the president's use of the word “wiretap” was not meant to be taken literally, but to refer to surveillance more generally.
During the briefing, Spicer read out press clips in an attempt to buttress Trump's wiretap claim, including one from Fox News that featured Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge and a regular commentator for Fox News. Napolitano told Fox News that three intelligence sources had said that Obama “went outside the chain of command” and used Britain’s GCHQ so “there’s no American fingerprints on this.”
Spicer recounted that interview at the briefing, telling assembled reporters:
“On 'Fox News,' on March 14, Judge Andrew Napolitano made the following statement, quote, 'Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command. He didn't use the NSA, he didn't use the CIA, he didn't use the FBI and he didn't use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ. What is that? It's the initials for the British intelligence finding agency. So, simply by having two people saying to them president needs transcripts of conversations involving candidate Trump's conversations, involving president-elect Trump, he's able to get it and there's no American fingerprints on this.”
The Daily Telegraph, a right-leaning British newspaper, said Friday that intelligence sources told the paper that Spicer and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, have apologized for the claims.
“The apology came direct from them,” a source told the paper.
In Washington, a senior White House official said that British officials had “expressed their concerns” to the White House, which responded by saying that Spicer had only referenced a story, not endorsed it.
“Ambassador Kim Darroch and Sir Mark Lyall expressed their concerns to Sean Spicer and General McMaster. Mr. Spicer and General McMaster explained that Mr. Spicer was simply pointing to public reports, not endorsing any specific story,” the official said.
Spicer, responding to a reporter's question Friday afternoon after a joint news conference with Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said: "I don't think we regret anything. We literally listed a litany of media reports that were in the public domain."
Analysts said that GCHQ’s unusual reaction was an attempt to distance itself from the raging debate in the United States.
“They really don’t want to get drawn into the toxic contest going on between the administration and the intelligence agencies in the U.S.,” said Ewan Lawson, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “They want to put some pretty clear space between them.”
He noted that the agency’s quick, robust statement was unusual, but to stay silent would have given “space to conspiracy theorists.”
David Omand, director of the GCHQ from 1996 to 1997, called the White House remarks “absurd” when asked about them by The Washington Post.
“Anyone who knows how the British system works would know how absurd it is to suggest that the White House could ever ask GCHQ to operate in that way, bypassing the FBI and U.S. legal process and GCHQ’s partners in NSA,” Omand said in an email.
But the former GCHQ director denied claims that the incident could have a long-term impact on cooperation between U.S. and British intelligence services, which he said have a “mutually supportive relationship” to counter terrorism and cyberattacks.
“Since the allegation is untrue, I cannot see it having any effect,” he said.
Trump tells Merkel: 'At least we have something in common' in nod to wiretap claim
President Trump today joked that he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel "have something in common," referring to reports that the Obama administration had listened to Merkel's cellphone calls.
At a joint news conference at the White House, Trump was asked by a German reporter about his unfounded claims that Trump Tower was wiretapped during the presidential campaign.
Judge Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News contributor, has alleged that British intelligence was tasked with spying on Trump and his team. The U.K.'s listening agency, Government Communications Headquarters, also known as GCHQ, has since shot down those claims.
"We said nothing," Trump said in reference to the claims about GCHQ. "All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for that on television. I didn't make an opinion on it. That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox.
"So you shouldn't be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox," he added.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer repeated Napolitano's comments -- along with several other news articles which made claims about surveillance -- at the White House press briefing on Thursday.
A spokesperson for GCHQ denied the report Thursday.
“Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct 'wire tapping' against the then president elect are nonsense," the spokesperson said in a news release. "They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”
Fox News' chief news anchor, Shepard Smith, addressed the matter on his show today, saying, “Fox News cannot confirm Judge Napolitano’s commentary. Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now President of the United States was surveilled at any time, in any way."
When Trump was asked at the news conference whether he has ever regretted some of his tweets, the president replied, "very seldom."