The White House has issued a formal apology to the British government after Press Secretary Sean Spicer alleged during a press briefing on Thursday that the U.K. intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, colluded with the administration of President Barack Obama to spy on Donald Trump during the election campaign period.
According to CNN, the U.S. National security adviser, H.R. McMaster, spoke with his British counterpart on Thursday and issued a formal apology over Spicer’s allegation. McMaster reportedly told his British counterpart that the U.S. government understood the concerns of the British government about Spicer’s comments at the press briefing and added that the comments were “unintentional.”
U.S. Officials described the conversation as “cordial.”
Spicer also reportedly spoke with the British ambassador to the U.S. about the matter.
According to CNN, a U.S. official said Spicer told the British ambassador that his comments were not meant to endorse the media story he cited during the press briefing. He claimed he cited the Fox News report only to highlight the extent of reporting on the issue by the media.
Spicer had cited a Fox News report that claimed British intelligence agencies helped the Obama administration to wiretap Trump Tower during the 2016 election campaign period. The Fox News report alleged that Obama asked the GCHQ — the British counterpart of the U.S. National Security Agency — to spy on his political rival Trump in order to keep the “fingerprints” of U.S. intelligence agencies from the alleged spying.
Spicer specifically cited a claim made by Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano during a segment on Tuesday that three sources within the U.S. intelligence community revealed that Obama purposefully bypassed U.S. intelligence agencies when he asked the British to spy on Trump on his behalf.
“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],'” Spicer said. “He [Obama] 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.”
Downing Street reacted with anger and fury to Spicer’s allegation. The British government issued a statement to the Trump administration protesting the claim, according to the Telegraph.
“We’ve made clear to the US administration that these claims are ridiculous and should be ignored. We’ve received assurances that these allegations won’t be repeated,” a spokesperson for the British Prime Minster Theresa May said, according to CNN.
Spicer’s allegation also elicited an unusually sharp response from the GCHQ, a secretive intelligence gathering organization with headquarters in Cheltenham, England, that almost never comments on its operations or allegations about its operations.
“Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president elect are nonsense,” a spokesman for the agency said. “They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”
Following the apology issued by the White House, Downing Street said it had received assurances from the U.S. government that the allegations will not be repeated.
The U.S. National Security Agency works closely with its counterparts in the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, under an agreement informally termed the “Five Eyes” intelligence agreement or convention. But the British government insisted that the “Five Eyes” intelligence agreement does not allow participating countries to help their counterparts to circumvent national laws.
“I would add as a matter of fact that 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 spokesperson for the British government said.
“Under the Five Eyes convention, we never spy on our main allies, and that includes the United States. This allegation is so off the scale crazy, it’s very hard to understand.”
But security and intelligence experts said that despite the apology by the Trump administration, the unfounded allegation places the relationship between the respective spy agencies at risk.
“The cost of falsely blaming our closest ally for something this consequential cannot be overstated,” tweeted Susan Rice, former national security adviser for the Obama administration.
Rice’s comment followed a statement on Thursday by the Senate Intelligence Committee that it has not seen any evidence substantiating Trump’s Twitter allegation that his New York Trump Tower office was wiretapped by the Obama administration, according to the Guardian.
“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,” said Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee, and Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), in a statement released on Thursday.
The statement by the Senate Intelligence Committee came a day after the House Intelligence Committee issued a similar statement that it hadn’t seen evidence to support Trump’s Twitter allegation.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) said the House Intelligence Committee did not have any evidence backing up Trump’s wiretapping allegation, according to the Independent.
House Speaker Paul Ryan also said he had not seen any evidence that Trump Tower was wiretapped.
Other members of Congress, including Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), warned that Trump’s reckless allegations compromised his credibility as president.
[Featured Image by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images]