WASHINGTON: The White House has apologised to 10 Downing Street after London strongly protested the allegation that a British intelligence agency spied on President Donald Trump, US officials said on Friday.
Senior US officials told media outlets that US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster spoke with his British counterpart on Thursday and explained the official US position on the controversy. And White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer contacted British Ambassador Kim Darroch in Washington to convey a similar clarification, the officials added.
Mr McMaster and Mr Spicer “offered what amounted to an apology to the British government,” a senior Trump administration official told CNN.
In London, a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May told reporters that they had received assurances from the White House that these allegations would not be repeated.
When asked if the White House had apologised, the spokesman said: “Let’s leave it that we’ve had reassurances that these allegations would not be repeated.”
The controversy started on March 4, when President Trump sent out a series of tweets, accusing his predecessor Barack Obama of wiretapping his headquarters at Trump Tower, New York, during the 2016 election campaign. But Britain got involved in the dispute on Thursday when Mr Spicer read a Fox News report from the White House podium, claiming that a British intelligence agency helped wiretap Trump Tower at the behest of former president Obama. The report identified the agency as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which is based in Cheltenham, England, and conducts global electronic surveillance for the British government.
The report included comments from a Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano, a former US judge. “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 did not use the FBI, and he did not use the Justice Department. He used GCHQ,’” Mr Spicer told journalists.
The White House press secretary did not stop there but also explained what and where this GCHQ was. “What is that? It’s the initials for the British intelligence finding agency,” he said.
The British government reacted immediately and asked the Trump administration to withdraw the allegation. “We’ve made [it] clear to the US administration that these claims are ridiculous and should be ignored,” a spokesman from Prime Minister May told reporters in London before the White House clarified its position.
The GCHQ, which rarely issues a public statement, also reacted angrily, saying that Mr Spicer’s claim was “nonsense”. Later, at a regular press briefing, a spokesman for Downing Street said Britain had received the reassurances it was seeking.
In Washington, White House officials said they had had a “cordial” conversation with its closest ally, Britain, and Mr McMaster described Mr Spicer’s comment as “unintentional.”
Mr McMaster also told his British counterpart that “their concerns were understood and heard and it would be relayed to the White House,” a senior Trump official told CNN.
The official said there was “at least two calls” from British officials on Thursday and that the British ambassador to the United States also called Mr Spicer to discuss the comment.
“Sean (Spicer) was pointing to the breadth of reporting, not endorsing any specific story,” the official said.
In London, a Downing Street spokesman told reporters that US clarification showed the Trump administration also gave no credence to the allegation. “We have a close special relationship with the White House and that allows us to raise concerns as and when they arise, as was true in this case,” he added.
Political observers and intelligence analysts, who appeared on various US television channels, warned the Trump administration not to drag close allies like Britain into domestic American politics. They reminded the White House that the intelligence agencies of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, are part of the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing agreement and share their data with the United States.
“Under the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence agreement, we cannot use each other’s capabilities to circumvent the law. It’s a situation that simply wouldn’t arise,” a British official explained in London.
The Trump administration faced embarrassment at home as well when the Senate Intelligence Committee declared on Thursday that its initial probe into the wiretapping allegation found no evidence to support President Trump’s claim that his election headquarters had been under surveillance in 2016.