The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s national security agency, was the first to obtain evidence of communication between top Trump campaign aides and Russian intelligence operatives, according to a report by the Guardian on Thursday. The British intelligence agency first noticed suspicious patterns of interaction and contacts between senior members of Trump’s campaign team and suspected or known Russian intelligence operatives while conducting routine surveillance operations in late 2015.
GCHQ officials acted as whistleblowers by promptly alerting their U.S. counterparts, the Guardian reported, quoting a “source close to U.K. intelligence.”
The British spies never actually wiretapped Trump during the 2016 general election, as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed. They also never carried out spying operations targeted at Trump or any member of his team. They stumbled upon evidence of the “suspicious interactions” in late 2015 during routine monitoring of known and suspected Russian intelligence operatives.
Over several months of monitoring the Russian targets, suspicious patterns of conversation between Trump aides and Russian operatives emerged. The British promptly passed the information to their U.S. counterparts as part of the normal exchange of electronic intelligence between British and U.S. agencies.
The electronic intelligence (SIGINT) that the British passed to their U.S. counterparts in 2015 was later corroborated by information that other European spy agencies shared with the U.S. agencies in 2016.
Other European intelligence agencies that shared similar information with the U.S. included the German, Polish, Australian, and Estonian agencies. It is believed that the French and Dutch intelligence agencies also shared information with their U.S. counterparts in 2016.
The information that came independently from the different European agencies gave evidence of ongoing “contacts between senior members of Trump’s political campaign and individuals known or suspected to be Russian operatives.”
Although the European agencies repeatedly alerted their U.S. counterparts, warning them that “there are contacts going on between people close to Mr. Trump and people we believe are Russian intelligence agents,” the U.S. agencies were slow to react partly because they did not immediately appreciate the extensive nature of the “suspicious interactions,” and partly because U.S. surveillance laws prohibit national agencies from spying on U.S. citizens.
“It looks like the [US] agencies were asleep,” a source close to British intelligence agencies told the Guardian.
But evidence from various European sources continued accumulating, and in July of 2016, after the extensive nature of the contacts between Trump aides and known Russian operatives had become clear, the FBI opened investigations into the matter.
The CIA had reportedly received information about ongoing contacts and conversations between Trump aides and Russian operatives from the intelligence agency of a Baltic state earlier in the spring of 2016. The information that former CIA Director James Brennan received suggested that funds that originated from Kremlin sources were being paid to bank accounts linked to the Trump campaign. Later in the summer of 2016, then-head of the British GCHQ Robert Hannigan, also passed intelligence material to Brennan, and by the end of summer 2016, the FBI and the CIA were involved in a major inter-agency investigative effort.
Director James Comey confirmed to the House Intelligence Committee during a public hearing in March that the FBI first opened the investigation into Trump-Russia ties in July of 2016. In August of 2016, Brennan briefed a group of U.S. lawmakers about information that showed Russian agents were interfering in the 2016 general election. The CIA said at the time that it could confidently confirm, based on available information, that the Russians were working to tilt the election in Trump’s favor.
The FBI had come to the same conclusion by December.
The whistleblower role of the British GCHQ probably explains why White House Press Secretary Sean Spice claimed, based on an unverified Fox News report, that British spies had helped the Obama administration wiretap Trump Tower ahead of the general election. Spicer had actually quoted a statement by Fox News analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano.
“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.”
The GCHQ issued a rare statement, denying the allegation that it had helped President Barack Obama to spy on Trump.
[Featured Image by Alex Brandon/AP Images]