Sean Spicer just suggested that Obama used British intelligence to spy on Trump. Britain isn’t happy.

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
March 16, 2017

In his daily press briefing yesterday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer repeated a claim that President Barack Obama had used British spies to surveil President Trump. After laying out a number of different media sources which Spicer suggested supported Trump’s contention that he was wiretapped, he concluded:

Last, on Fox News on March 14th, 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 spying agency. So simply by having two people saying to them the 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. Putting the published accounts and common sense together, this leads to a lot.

This is an explosive accusation. It has already led to fury in Britain, and reports in British media that Spicer and US National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster have been forced to quietly apologize. A spokesperson for Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, has said that “we’ve received assurances from the White House that these allegations would not be repeated.”

What’s GCHQ?

GCHQ — Government Communications Headquarters — is Britain’s equivalent of the National Security Agency. Like the NSA, it engages in extensive international surveillance. It also has a close relationship with the United States. Britain is one of the “Five Eyes,” a group of five English-speaking countries, including the United States, which engage in close and intensive collaboration and intelligence sharing. Even within that context the United States and Britain have an unusually tight relationship. In the words of Stephen Lander, a former head of Britain’s MI5, relations are so close that intelligence “consumers in both capitals seldom know which country generated either the access or the product itself.”

Close collaboration can lead to temptation

Some people writing on intelligence and surveillance note that close working relations such as this can allow intelligence agencies to evade domestic controls. Jennifer Granick, in her new Cambridge University Press book, American Spies: Modern Surveillance, Why You Should Care, and What To Do About It, notes that Five Eyes countries aren’t supposed to spy on one another’s citizens. However, she says that the NSA has prepared policies that would allow it to spy on Five Eyes citizens without permission. She furthermore suggests that:

The Five Eyes collaboration appears to extend the NSA’s surveillance capabilities, giving the agency a way to spy on Americans without technically breaking US laws that would otherwise prohibit such spying. Edward Snowden described the Five Eyes as a “supra-national intelligence organization that doesn’t answer to the laws of its own countries.” In other words, if US law doesn’t protect the privacy rights of British citizens, and British laws don’t protect the rights of Americans, then they can just spy on us, we’ll spy on them, and our intelligence agencies will just swap information. This evasion of domestic privacy laws would enable essentially unlimited spying unaffected by either collection or usage rules.

Granick notes that if there are rules that would protect Americans from Five Eyes spying, or about the ways that the NSA, FBI or CIA could use information from foreign partners, we haven’t seen them.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post