LONDON — In a highly unusual move, Britain’s main surveillance agency slapped down allegations that the Obama administration used it to spy on Donald Trump during the presidential campaign, saying the claims were “utterly ridiculous.”
The unit, known as the GCHQ, is the British equivalent of the National Security Agency and 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 press briefing in Washington on Thursday where White House press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that Trump stands by his explosive charge that Obama spied on him during the 2016 presidential election. Spicer has, however, attempted to soften Trump’s initial allegation, saying that that Trump’s use of the word “wiretap” was not meant to be taken literally, but to refer to surveillance more generally.
During the briefing, Spicer cited claims made earlier this week on Fox News by Napolitano. The former judge told the broadcaster that sources had informed Fox News that Obama 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 on 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. There was no immediate comment from the Trump administration.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Theresa May, the British prime minister, did not confirm that an apology had been made. But he did say that the White House had given assurances — to the British ambassador in Washington and the prime minister’s national security adviser — that the allegations that GCHQ had spied on Trump won’t be repeated.
Analysts said that GCHQ’s unusual reaction was an attempt to distance itself from the raging debate in the U.S.
“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 give space to conspiracy theorists.”