The White House has assured the UK government it will not repeat allegations that President Donald Trump was placed under surveillance by GCHQ, Britain’s electronic eavesdropping agency, after London protested over the “nonsense” claims.
The allegations, made on Thursday by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, triggered an angry response from Downing Street, an extraordinary high-level spat between two allies with possibly the closest intelligence-sharing relationship in the world.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman on Friday described the allegations as “nonsense”.
“We have made this clear to the administration, and have received assurances that these allegations will not be repeated,” the spokesman said.
Downing Street pointed out that the so-called Five Eyes pact governing intelligence sharing between the UK and US specifically prohibited “the use of each other’s capabilities to circumvent our laws”.
Breaking with its convention of not formally commenting on intelligence matters, GCHQ responded to the allegations, after Mr Spicer repeated the comments of a Fox News analyst that Barack Obama, the former president, had used it to do his dirty work.
“There’s no question that there were surveillance techniques used,” Mr Spicer said from the White House briefing room podium, reading aloud a series of media reports, which he argued backed up the president’s claims.
“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,” Mr Spicer said, quoting Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News legal analyst who asserted that three intelligence sources had told him Mr Obama had spied on Mr Trump via British intelligence.
“Putting the published accounts and common sense together, this leads to a lot,” the press secretary added, using his own words.
A spokesperson for GCHQ responded: “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.”
Senior British officials rang the White House immediately to complain after Mr Spicer made the claims.
“The suggestion that [Barack Obama] asked GCHQ to spy on Trump is just completely barking — that would be evident to anyone who knew the system,” former GCHQ chief David Omand told the Financial Times.
“If the telephone rang in GCHQ from the White House, that in itself would be unheard of. The director [GCHQ’s chief] would then ring his US counterpart, the director of the NSA — there’s a hotline on his desk — to ask if it was a hoax. The next person he would ring would be the [UK] foreign secretary to say we’ve had this amazing request. Nothing would happen without a warrant from the top of government and that would just never be granted in these circumstances.”
The spat will nevertheless play to mounting concern in the UK intelligence community over the Trump presidency, and its so-far tumultuous relationship with its own spymasters.
“The cost of blaming our closest ally for something this consequential cannot be overstated,” tweeted Susan Rice, the former US national security adviser, shortly after Mr Spicer made his claims.
Tim Farron, leader of the UK’s Liberal Democrats, tweeted: “Trump is compromising the vital UK-US security relationship to try to cover his own embarrassment. This harms our and US security. Shameful.”
The Anglo-American intelligence relationship has been the closest in the world and routinely involves the seamless sharing of highly sensitive material. Britain has played a particularly strong role in recent months in gathering intelligence on Russia, but some in the UK fear that the somewhat chaotic first few weeks of the Trump administration and its vocal approach to intelligence matters may prefigure a more inhibited relationship in the future.
The White House doubled down on its claims that the Obama administration had put Mr Trump’s campaign under surveillance hours after the Republican and Democratic heads of the Senate intelligence committee said it had no evidence to support Mr Trump’s claim.
“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,” Richard Burr, the Republican committee chairman, and Mark Warner, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said in a joint statement.
Mr Spicer said the Senate intelligence committee had reached its conclusion on the matter before receiving all the relevant information, but Mr Warner disputed that claim.
“The bipartisan leaders of the intelligence committee would not have made the statement they made without being fully briefed by the appropriate authorities,” Mr Warner’s spokesman said.
On Wednesday, Mr Trump admitted in an interview with Fox News that he had decided to make his allegations about the Obama White House after hearing a different Fox News anchor discuss wiretapping on his programme. But the president insisted that more evidence on the matter was still to come.
“I think you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks,” he said.
The Senate intelligence committee statement comes days before James Comey, the FBI director, is due to testify before the Senate judiciary committee on the agency’s probe into Russia’s meddling in the US election, an event likely to attract further scrutiny over questions concerning potential links between Moscow and Mr Trump’s campaign.
On Thursday, it emerged that Mike Flynn, a senior adviser on Mr Trump’s campaign and the president’s former national security adviser, had received tens of thousands of dollars from Russian companies, including RT, the Kremlin-funded television network, which paid for Mr Flynn to attend a 2015 gala in Moscow.
Mr Flynn also received money from Kaspersky Lab, a cyber security company, and from a Russian charter cargo airline, for speeches in Washington, according to the documents, which were first obtained by the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.