Spies, lies and wiretaps

Never before has a US president attracted so much public criticism from US intelligence and its closest intelligence ally, Britain

March 27, 2017
United States President Donald Trump © Olivier Douliery/DPA/PA Images
United States President Donald Trump © Olivier Douliery/DPA/PA Images

Britain’s signals intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), recently made an unprecedented public statement rejecting allegations made by the White House that it had “wiretapped” the US President, Donald Trump. GCHQ did not mince its words, describing the allegations as “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous.” It said that they “should be ignored.” Malcolm Rifkind, a former chair of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, labelled the allegations “stupid” and “rubbish.” Meanwhile, GCHQ’s sister signals intelligence agency in America, the NSA, termed the claim “arrant nonsense.” Never before has the White House attracted the collective public criticism of America’s own intelligence community and that of its closest intelligence ally, Britain.

Despite the diplomatic furore caused on both sides of the Atlantic, at the time of writing President Trump appears to be standing firm on the uncorroborated claim that British intelligence spied on him. The saga started, inevitably, with a series of early-morning tweets from President Trump on 4th March. He accused his predecessor, President Obama, of instigating a “Nixon/Watergate” plot to tap his phones: “Terrible! Just found out that President Obama had “wire tappes” [sic] in Trump Tower before the victory,” adding in another tweet about Obama, “bad (or sick) guy!” After Trump’s twitter storm of allegations, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, was quick to deny there had been a wiretap on Trump Tower—which, as the head of US intelligence, he would have known about. After looking into the allegations, the House Intelligence Committee, chaired by a Trumpophile, Rep. Devin Nunes, stated that no wiretapping of Trump Tower had occurred. The House intelligence committee’s counterpart in the Senate issued a similarly robust statement, finding “no indications” of wiretapping or wider surveillance at Trump Tower. At this point, with the White House apparently backed into a corner about the president’s wiretapping claim, events took on an even stranger turn—and a more damaging one internationally—dragging Britain into the saga.

Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, stated that the president stood by his allegation of wiretapping, but with a refinement: Spicer cited a claim made on Fox News by a right-wing legal commentator, Judge Andrew Napolitano, that President Obama had not used US intelligence agencies to spy on Trump, but instead Britain’s GCHQ—so there would be “no American fingerprints” on the wiretaps. When challenged about this allegation at an awkward press conference with the German leader, Angela Merkel, in which the president joked that they both had been wiretapped by US intelligence, Trump said that he was merely passing on statements made by a talented legal commentator (Napolitano).

Trump’s stance on this is absurd. It is a basic duty of government to verify the accuracy of statements before passing them on—failing to do so is a dereliction of that duty. For Trump’s White House, however, operating in the post-truth era, objective facts do not necessarily even exist: alternative facts (and alternative opinions given by fringe commentators) are just as valid. After GCHQ’s public rebuttal, and facing diplomatic pressure from No 10 behind the scenes, the White House reportedly apologised to the British government and stated that it would not repeat the wiretapping claims. However, this is not the same as saying the claims are false. The president is apparently standing firm on his conspiracy theory—for he is suggesting there was an intelligence conspiracy against him—that Britain spied on him at President Obama’s behest. In a further twist, Spicer has now denied there was an apology to the British government and stated the White House has nothing to regret.

To put this saga in context, it needs to be appreciated how unusual it is for GCHQ to make any public statement at all about its work—let alone to make a statement rebutting the press secretary of the President of the United States. GCHQ, based in Cheltenham, works secretively, away from the public gaze, and prefers to keep it that way. For most of the 20th century, the British government considered signals intelligence to be so sensitive that it did not even admit the existence of GCHQ, let alone discuss its work. The unprecedented achievements of GCHQ’s wartime predecessor, Bletchley Park, were kept secret for decades after 1945, with thousands of staff employed there not revealing their work. It was only after the end of the Cold War, in 1994, that the British government finally placed GCHQ on a statutory (and constitutional) footing. Since then, GCHQ has made moves towards greater transparency—it now has a Twitter account—but it still prefers to work secretly. Its usual mantra is neither to confirm nor deny allegations about its activities. GCHQ’s public statement is thus a staggering break with its near century-long tradition of not publicly discussing its activities.

Before its entry into the First World War, Britain intercepted American communications. Bletchley Park did the same again before America’s entry into the Second World War, with some intercepted US diplomatic traffic even reaching Churchill’s desk. However, after America’s entry into the Second World War with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, British code-breakers stopped targeting US communications. Churchill admitted to Franklin D Roosevelt that Britain had been engaged in un-gentlemanly activities, reading American mail, and promised they would cease. After that, the two countries established an unprecedented wartime signals intelligence-sharing relationship, which prohibited each country targeting the other for signals intelligence collection.

Britain and America’s signals intelligence-sharing agreement resumed after the war, in agreements known as UKUSA, deemed so sensitive that their texts were only declassified in 2010. The UKUSA signals intelligence agreements soon expanded into incorporate three Commonwealth countries, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—now known as the Five Eyes intelligence sharing agreement. During the Cold War, GCHQ and NSA worked so closely that they became practically inter-connected. NSA has a station at GCHQ’s Cheltenham headquarters and GCHQ one at NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters. One former NSA Director, Michael Hayden, has described that in the case of a cataclysmic breakdown or attack on NSA, GCHQ would take over for it. Largely through signals intelligence, Britain and America have shared more secrets than any other two independent countries in history. Intelligence is correctly called the most special part of the “special relationship.”

Britain and America have a long history of using wiretaps to collect intelligence, both independently and together. As Gordon Corera has shown in his book, Intercept, wiretaps are as old as the telegraph and telephone. In America, law enforcement agencies like the FBI used wiretaps on targets under criminal investigation. In Britain, MI5 tapped the telephones of subjects under investigation, through warrants signed by the Home Secretary, such as the London headquarters of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). MI5 transcribed these tapped conversations in a special facility at the London headquarters of the General Post Office, run by an assistant MI5 officer, Evelyn Grist, known as the “Gristery” in her honour. Its telephone checks (taps) on the CPGB provided MI5 with a rolling commentary on how the CPGB leadership viewed world events in the Cold War. For example, they provided MI5 with unique intelligence on the communist sympathies of anti-colonial leaders who sought (and obtained) independence from Britain in the post-war years in countries across the globe, from Malaya to Kenya and the West Indies. Based on telephone taps (and other surveillance) of the CPGB, MI5 was able to calm fears in London and Washington about the communist affiliations of many national independence leaders in those countries. Its wiretaps revealed that the CPGB viewed many of them as disappointments, “busted-flushes,” who failed to tow the Communist Party line.

One of the most remarkable joint British and US telephone tapping operations of the Cold War took place in Berlin in the mid-1950s. British and US intelligence teams dug a 500-meter tunnel from the American sector in Berlin into the Soviet sector and tapped the landlines running to Soviet military and intelligence headquarters at Karlshorst. The Berlin tunnel operation, codenamed GOLD, produced phenomenal amounts of information. At the end of each week for the fourteen months the tunnel was operational, between February 1955 and April 1956, planeloads of tapes were flown from Berlin to Washington, where fifty US intelligence personnel (Russian and German speakers) studied them. It took two and a half years after the tunnel was abandoned for US intelligence to finish processing the telephone intercepts obtained from it. The Berlin tunnel operation was abandoned when it was “discovered” by Soviet intelligence. In fact, unknown to US and British intelligence at the time, a high-level Soviet agent working in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), George Blake, had betrayed the Anglo-American tunnel operation to Moscow from the outset. The “discovery” of the tunnel by Soviet intelligence was staged.

Interception of US communications was transformed by the 1975-76 Church Committee investigation of the CIA for spying on anti-Vietnam War activists. After the Church Committee, the US government enacted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). There are now only two ways that US persons can have their communications intercepted by US agencies: either as a result of a criminal inquiry or as part of an intelligence operation where there is a probability that the target is an “agent of a foreign power”—broadly speaking, those suspected of espionage. Both grounds require a US court order for wiretapping and other forms of interception. Meanwhile in Britain, GCHQ’s interception activities today are overseen by parliamentary and ministerial oversight, requiring authorisation by the British foreign secretary on the grounds that such interception is necessary and proportional to the threat posed.

Taken together, these points raise three fundamental issues about the Trump White House wiretapping claims: first, a US president is unable to order a wiretap, or otherwise intercept, US communications, as Trump’s tweets suggest. This can only be done through a US court. Second, for GCHQ to intercept communications of a US presidential candidate would require authorisation from a British foreign secretary and it is unthinkable that a foreign secretary would sign a warrant authorising such an intrusion into domestic US politics. Third, even if this did happen, Britain and America’s signals intelligence sharing agreements expressly prevent either country doing something that would be illegal under the laws of the other country. In other words, the conspiracy theory of GCHQ wiretapping Trump is necessarily based on the premise that it is illegal. If this is what the White House is alleging, then it should make this clear. At last week’s high-profile House hearing into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, NSA Director Mike Rogers responded succinctly to a question about whether White House claims about GCHQ were true: “No… that would be expressly against the construct of the Five Eyes Agreement.”

In normal times, this would likely be the end of the matter: the president made (serious) mistake. However, these are not normal times. A week after Trump’s original tweets about a wiretapping conspiracy against him, on 8th March, WikiLeaks dumped thousands of illegally obtained documents apparently revealing that the CIA, assisted by Britain’s MI5, developed ways of turning internet-capable household items like television sets into eavesdropping devices. WikiLeaks’ dump of classified information has served Trump well: it has distracted media from reporting about Russian intelligence interference in the 2016 presidential election, and added to beliefs among a vocal minority—following the former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, now in Russia—that America and Britain are in the business of mass-surveillance. One looks in vain among the WikiLeaks documents to find any mention that interception through eavesdropping devices would be subject to parliamentary and judicial oversight and would need to be proportional and necessary to the threat posed by a target. One also looks in vain on WikiLeaks to find anything about Russian intelligence. This strengthens the suspicion that WikiLeaks is really a front organisation for Russian intelligence. With unsubtle timing, during last week’s House investigation into Russian interference in the US election, WikiLeaks re-tweeted information about CIA spying—its message is that US intelligence, not Russian, is the enemy.

In yet a further twist, last week the House Intelligence Chair, Nunes, revealed that some of President Trump’s communications, and those of his transition team, may have been collected incidentally as part of US investigations on other targets, presumably Russian. (Nunes seems to have revealed this without informing Democrat members of the House intelligence committee, leading to questions about his impartiality.) There is a fundamental difference between incidental collection of communications arising as a by-product of a FISA target—for example, people suspected of involvement with Russian intelligence—and saying there was a wiretap on Trump Tower, as Trump claimed. We know that the communications of Trump’s former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, were intercepted because he communicated with the Russian ambassador in Washington, who was a target of routine US interception. The Russian ambassador’s communications were the US target, not Flynn’s. The same may have occurred with Trump. After the revelation of “incidental collection,” Trump has stated that he feels “somewhat vindicated.” It is unclear why: by definition, it means he was communicating with a FISA target, or targets.

As events have unfolded, Trump’s original tweet about a “Nixon/Watergate” wiretapping conspiracy is probably more accurate than he cares to admit. However, rather than Obama, a former professor of US constitutional law, being the Nixon figure, instead each day that passes, Trump appears to be more like Nixon. Like Nixon, Trump shares a conspiratorial belief that his political enemies have wiretapped and bugged him. After Flynn’s dismissal for lying about communicating with the Russian ambassador, as well misstatements by Trump’s attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, under oath—some would say perjury—about meeting with the Russian ambassador, Trump’s political opponents smell a Watergate-type scandal. Trump’s presidency may well end in a similar way to Nixon’s. Adding to suspicions about a cover-up, Nunes inexplicably cancelled the House Intelligence committee’s second open hearing, scheduled for 28th March, at which Clapper was due to appear, as well as former deputy attorney-general Sally Yates, who was fired by Trump.

At last week’s House hearing, FBI Director James Comey stated for the first time publicly that the FBI is investigating Russian links with Trump. This is the first time there has been a counter-intelligence probe into a sitting US president. The unprecedented situation we now find ourselves in is that, in the considered assessments of both the US and British governments, as well as their respective intelligence agencies, claims by White House about wiretapping are erroneous—or put another way, fake news. An obvious questions arising from this extraordinary saga is who would benefit from disinformation about GCHQ spying on Trump? The undeniable answer is President Vladimir Putin of Russia. It serves Putin’s purposes well for the Anglo-American trans-Atlantic intelligence relationship to weaken. In fact, evidence suggests the origins of the GCHQ wiretapping claim may have been Russia Today, the news agency owned by the Russian government, understood to publicise Kremlin disinformation. A former British ambassador in Washington, Peter Westmacott, is surely right to conclude that, by peddling falsehoods about GCHQ wiretapping Trump, the White House is really doing the Kremlin’s bidding. It is a gift to Britain and America’s enemies.