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.
Rick Noack in London and Abby Phillip and Philip Rucker in Washington contributed to this report.