Trump at­tacked by for­mer UK en­voy over wire­tap­ping claims

Pres­i­dent ac­cused of ‘ped­dling false­hoods’ and en­dan­ger­ing US-UK re­la­tions

The Guardian - - FRONT PAGE - Ed Pilk­ing­ton New York

The for­mer Bri­tish am­bas­sador to Wash­ing­ton Sir Peter West­ma­cott has is­sued a with­er­ing crit­i­cism of Don­ald Trump and his in­ner cir­cle, ac­cus­ing them of mak­ing ab­surd, un­think­able and non­sen­si­cal claims about the UK’s in­volve­ment in al­leged wire­tap­ping of Trump Tower that he warns could dam­age close ties be­tween the two coun­tries.

Writ­ing in to­day’s Guardian, West­ma­cott ac­cuses the White House of not only “ped­dling false­hoods” that the in­tel­li­gence agency GCHQ as­sisted the then pres­i­dent, Barack Obama, in tap­ping Trump’s New York phones, but of po­ten­tially harm­ing in­tel­li­gence co­op­er­a­tion across the At­lantic.

His com­ments come as the Repub­li­can chair of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee said he had seen no ev­i­dence to back Trump’s claims, and as a Repub­li­can mem­ber of that panel said the pres­i­dent should apol­o­gise to Bri­tain.

“This is a dan­ger­ous game,” West­ma­cott writes. “The in­tel­li­gence re­la­tion­ship be­tween Bri­tain and Amer­ica is unique and pre­cious. It is crit­i­cal to our shared ef­forts to counter ter­ror­ism.”

West­ma­cott adds that “gra­tu­itously dam­ag­ing it by ped­dling false­hoods and then do­ing noth­ing to set the record straight would be a gift to our en­e­mies they could only dream of”.

The for­mer am­bas­sador’s ex­co­ri­at­ing re­marks are all the more re­mark­able given that he stepped down from his role as the UK’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Wash­ing­ton as re­cently as Jan­uary last year.

His un­re­strained put­down of Trump’s re­fusal to cor­rect the un­sub­stan­ti­ated wire­tap­ping al­le­ga­tions – which West­ma­cott as­cribes acer­bically to the pres­i­dent’s “fa­mous re­luc­tance to ad­mit mis­takes” – is a clear in­di­ca­tion of the intensity of Bri­tish anger at hav­ing been dragged into what is seen as a con­tro­versy en­tirely of Trump’s own mak­ing.

Such a sear­ing at­tack from a se­nior for­mer UK diplo­mat adds to the heat on Trump and his team as the wire­tap­ping furore en­ters its third and pos­si­bly de­ci­sive week. The pres­i­dent dropped the bomb­shell on 4 March, claim­ing in a tweet that Obama had tapped his phones dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, and has en­gaged in an in­creas­ingly des­per­ate ef­fort to stand by the charge ever since.

To­day, the pow­er­ful in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee of the House will hear tes­ti­mony from the FBI di­rec­tor, James Comey, and Ad­mi­ral Mike Rogers, head of GCHQ’s equiv­a­lent in the US, the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency. Both are cer­tain to come un­der heavy ques­tion­ing as to whether there is any ev­i­dence of wire­tap­ping, or sur­veil­lance of any kind, at Trump Tower un­der Obama’s in­struc­tion.

In ad­vance of the key hear­ing, Trump came un­der a bar­rage of fresh crit­i­cism on yes­ter­day’s po­lit­i­cal talk­shows from mem­bers of the House in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee, in­clud­ing those from the pres­i­dent’s own party.

The chair­man of the House com­mit­tee, the Repub­li­can Devin Nunes, made clear that hav­ing read a De­part­ment of Jus­tice re­port into the af­fair that was de­liv­ered to him on Fri­day, there was no ev­i­dence of a phys­i­cal wire­tap on Trump Tower, nor any ev­i­dence that the Fisa court that over­sees the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies had ap­proved any sur­veil­lance. “There was no Fisa war­rant that I’m aware of to tap Trump Tower,” Nunes told Fox News Sun­day,

adding: “I don’t think there is any­one in the White House to­day that is un­der any type of sur­veil­lance at all.”

An­other Repub­li­can, Will Hurd, went fur­ther and said it was time for Trump to apol­o­gise to the UK. The rep­re­sen­ta­tive, who had a nine-year ca­reer as a CIA agent, said it was im­por­tant to say sorry “for the in­ti­ma­tion that the UK was in­volved”.

“We need to make sure we are all work­ing to­gether,” he said. “We live in a very dan­ger­ous world and can’t do this alone.”

The in­cen­di­ary claim that GCHQ con­spired with Obama may come up in dis­cus­sions to­mor­row be­tween the Bri­tish for­eign sec­re­tary, Boris John­son, and se­nior Trump aides. John­son is due in Wash­ing­ton to at­tend a global meet­ing on de­feat­ing Is­lamic State.

In his Guardian col­umn, West­ma­cott ex­horts John­son to seize the mo­ment and make Bri­tish dis­plea­sure known. “He needs to make very clear that this is not a game,” the for­mer am­bas­sador writes.

The Bri­tish row erupted last Thurs­day when the White House press sec­re­tary, Sean Spicer, cited an un­sub­stan­ti­ated re­port by a Fox News com­men­ta­tor, An­drew Napoli­tano, that claimed Obama had used GCHQ to spy on Trump. Fox News later dis­so­ci­ated it­self from the al­le­ga­tions, say­ing there was no ev­i­dence.

In a highly un­usual pub­lic in­ter­ven­tion from GCHQ, the spy agency’s spokesman called the claims “ut­terly ridicu­lous”.

West­ma­cott, who served as Bri­tish am­bas­sador to Turkey and France be­fore mov­ing to the US be­tween 2012 and Jan­uary 2016, un­der­lines the sense of shock in the UK at the wire­tap­ping claims.

“Any­one with any knowl­edge of the in­tel­li­gence world knew the sug­ges­tion was ab­surd,” he writes. He goes on to warn that any move to dam­age the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Bri­tain and the US could harm shared ef­forts to “counter ter­ror­ism, Rus­sian ag­gres­sion, the cy­ber-at­tacks of China, the nu­clear threat from North Korea and much else”.

De­spite the ridicule and cen­sure Trump has faced, the pres­i­dent con­tin­ues to stick to his wire­tap­ping al­le­ga­tions. His only con­ces­sion so far saw Spicer say that the pres­i­dent used “wire­tap­ping” in quo­ta­tion marks, to sig­nify wider sur­veil­lance.

In the course of a press con­fer­ence with the Ger­man chan­cel­lor, An­gela Merkel, on Fri­day, Trump praised the Fox News con­trib­u­tor who started the dis­pute, call­ing Napoli­tano a “very tal­ented lawyer”.

He also elicited an ex­pres­sion of be­mused pain from Merkel when he tried to joke that “at least we have some­thing in com­mon” – an al­lu­sion to his claim that they have both been the vic­tims of US gov­ern­ment wire­tap­ping. Ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments leaked by Ed­ward Snow­den to the Guardian and other me­dia out­lets in 2013, Merkel was among world lead­ers tar­geted by the NSA for sur­veil­lance.

Sir Peter West­ma­cott said Pres­i­dent Trump’s claims were non­sen­si­cal

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