The White House has raised the claim Barack Obama used Britain’s spy agency to wiretap Donald Trump, which UK intelligence agencies broke with conventions to dismiss as “nonsense, utterly ridiculous and should be ignored”.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer repeated a claim first made by a Fox News pundit as he attempted to blitz media with a series of reports and comments hinting at surveillance to justify his boss’s unfounded tweets.
In yet another extraordinary press conference, Spicer read out articles written by the New York Times, the Guardian and others, and included the false claim made by US television analyst Andrew Napolitano, who alleged Government Communications Headquarters - or GCHQ - involvement in the spying.
This is Napolitano’s claim:
Spicer quoted Napolitano saying Obama “went outside the chain of command” by not using US intelligence. “He used GCHQ,” Spicer said, again quoting Fox News. “What is that? It’s the initials for the British intelligence spying agency.”
Spicer said, quoting Napolitano, the justification was: “There’s no American fingerprints on this.”
Asked whether the claim threatened the US-UK ‘special relationship’ and had been raised with Theresa May, Spicer told reporters:
“I think that was something two days ago that was reported on air ... no, no, it has not been raised. All we are doing is literally reading off what other stations and people have reported. That cast into concern some of the activities that happened in the 2016 election. We’re not casting judgement on that. I think the idea is to say if these organisations came to these conclusions they merit looking into.”
British officials were quick to dismiss Napolitano’s claims as “nonsense”.
In a surprise break from its normal practice of refusing to comment on allegations about its activities, a spokesman for GCHQ said:
“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.”
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron condemned Mr Spicer’s retailing of the Napolitano claims as “shameful”.
“Trump is compromising the vital UK-US security relationship to try to cover his own embarrassment,” said the Lib Dem leader. “This harms our and US security.”
Spicer’s intervention came shortly after the Senate Intelligence Committee released a statement saying they had seen no evidence to support the US president’s claim - made in a series of Twitter posts earlier this month - that Mr Obama installed wire-taps at Trump Towers.
In a statement, the committee’s Republican chairman Richard Burr and his Democrat counterpart Mark Warner said: “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.”
Trump tweeted on March 4 that Obama had tapped his phones at Trump Tower during the election. But Trump offered no evidence to back up the accusation.
Through a spokesman, Obama said neither he nor any White House official had ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said nothing matching Trump’s claims had taken place.
“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 Department of Justice.
“He used GCHQ. What the heck is GCHQ? That’s the initials for the British spying agency. They have 24/7 access to the NSA database.
“So by simply having two people go to them saying, ‘President Obama needs transcripts of conversations involving candidate Trump, conversations involving president-elect Trump,’ he’s able to get it, and there’s no American fingerprints on this.”