The White House has promised not to repeat allegations that a UK intelligence agency spied on US President Donald Trump at the behest of former President Barack Obama, the British government said Friday.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said UK officials had protested to the Trump administration after the claims were repeated by US Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
“We’ve made clear to the US administration that these claims are ridiculous and should be ignored. We’ve received assurances that these allegations won’t be repeated,” the spokesman said.
Trump doubles down on wiretapping claims 01:19
At a Thursday press briefing, Spicer read out allegations originally made on Tuesday on Fox News by legal analyst Andrew Napolitano, that the UK intelligence agency had spied on Trump.
“Judge Andrew Napolitano made the following statement, quote, ‘Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command (to spy on Trump). He didn’t use the NSA, he didn’t use the CIA … he used GCHQ,'” Spicer told journalists.
GCHQ: Wiretap claims are ‘nonsense’
Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, England.
When making the original allegations, Napolitano implied the decision to use GCHQ had been made to keep “American fingerprints” off the spying.
A GCHQ spokesperson said Napolitano’s claims were “utterly ridiculous.”
What is GCHQ?
The UK government’s eavesdropping agency, it carries out electronic surveillance to combat terrorism, cyber threats and serious crime.
It’s one of three UK intelligence agencies, the others being MI5, the domestic security service, and MI6, the foreign intelligence service.
GCHQ’s collaboration with the United States dates back to the Second World War.
Its operations are shrouded in secrecy and it rarely makes public statements.
It has its headquarters in the English spa town of Cheltenham and says it employs more than 6,000 people.
“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 … should be ignored,” the spokesperson said.
It rarely comments on specific operations, and almost never in such blunt terms.
UK intelligence agencies work closely with their US counterparts, as well as those in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as part of the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing agreement.
The White House allegations prompted concern that the US-UK intelligence relationship could be undermined.
Tim Farron, leader of the UK Liberal Democrat party — the junior coalition partner in the last government — described the White House claim as “shameful” and said it risked harming US and UK security.
“Trump is compromising the vital UK-US security relationship to try to cover his own embarrassment,” he tweeted.
Susan Rice, National Security Adviser under former US President Barack Obama, tweeted, “The cost of falsely blaming our closest ally for something this consequential cannot be overstated.”
The intelligence-sharing relationship between Britain and the United States dates back decades, to the time of the Second World War.
More recently, claims by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about mass US surveillance programs such as Prism led to questions over GCHQ’s relationship with the NSA. It was censured by a UK tribunal in 2015 for not making enough information public about how it shares Internet surveillance data with its US counterpart.
GCHQ director Robert Hannigan, in a statement on the agency’s website last year, described GCHQ as “fully accountable” and said the UK intelligence agencies “are subject to one of the most stringent legal and oversight regimes in the world.”
Senate committee finds no evidence of wiretap
The GCHQ denial came as the Senate Intelligence Committee announced it had found no evidence Trump Tower had been under surveillance in 2016, contrary to Trump’s previous claims.
“Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016,” committee chair Richard Burr said in a statement Thursday.
Ryan: I’ve seen no evidence wiretap occured 04:54
The same day, US House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan told CNN in an interview that he also hadn’t seen any evidence of a wiretap or a surveillance order against Trump Tower.
Trump originally made the allegations against former US President Barack Obama on March 4 in a series of early morning tweets.
“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” he said on his official Twitter account.
Just under two weeks later, in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, Trump appeared to walk back his original wiretapping allegations.
“Wiretap covers a lot of different things,” Trump told Carlson on Wednesday. “I think you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.”