Peter West­ma­cott,

The Guardian - - NEWS -

It is over two weeks since Don­ald Trump first tweeted his still un­sub­stan­ti­ated al­le­ga­tions that Barack Obama had tapped his phones dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cam­paign. Since then, the chairs of both the Se­nate and House in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees have said they don’t be­lieve the charge. But the story is now mov­ing on from farce to se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal drama.

In an at­tempt to limit the dam­age, the pres­i­dent’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, tried to ar­gue that the quo­ta­tion marks Trump put around the al­le­ga­tions of phone-tap­ping in some of his tweets on 4 March meant they weren’t se­ri­ous.

The story took a sig­nif­i­cant fur­ther twist last Thurs­day when Spicer, speak­ing from a podium car­ry­ing the seal of the pres­i­dent of the United States, re­peated an ac­count from a Fox News com­men­ta­tor al­leg­ing that, in­stead of us­ing one of the US agen­cies, Obama had asked GCHQ in Cheltenham to tap Trump’s phones on his be­half.

Any­one with any knowl­edge of the in­tel­li­gence world knew the sug­ges­tion was ab­surd. First, the US pres­i­dent does not have the power to order the tap­ping of any­one’s phone. Sec­ond, the idea of the Bri­tish for­eign sec­re­tary sign­ing a war­rant au­tho­ris­ing such an in­tru­sion into do­mes­tic US pol­i­tics was un­think­able. GCHQ broke its tra­di­tional si­lence and moved quickly to dis­miss the al­le­ga­tion as “ut­terly ridicu­lous”. No 10 fol­lowed suit soon af­ter­wards.

Non­sense it was, but the con­text was un­set­tling. Some of the in­tel­li­gence be­hind cur­rent FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tions into con­tacts be­tween the Trump team and Rus­sian of­fi­cials, and into the hack­ing of Demo­cratic party emails, is re­ported to have come from Bri­tish sources. Then there is the dossier pre­pared by a for­mer Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial, Christo­pher Steele, which it­self made a se­ries of un­sub­stan­ti­ated al­le­ga­tions about Trump’s links to Rus­sia.

So Lon­don was un­der­stand­ably keen to kill off any sug­ges­tion, how­ever non­sen­si­cal, that Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence agen­cies had been act­ing against the new pres­i­dent’s in­ter­ests. The diplo­matic ma­chin­ery be­gan whirring, and the press were briefed that Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser had apol­o­gised to his Bri­tish op­po­site num­ber. In par­al­lel, the Bri­tish am­bas­sador spoke di­rectly to Spicer to en­sure there would be no rep­e­ti­tion of the al­le­ga­tion.

There the story might have ended. But it was given fresh legs when Trump, at a press con­fer­ence with the Ger­man chan­cel­lor, An­gela Merkel, last Fri­day, ducked a ques­tion about the ve­rac­ity of the al­le­ga­tions, say­ing that any­one who had an is­sue with them should talk to Fox News – which promptly is­sued a state­ment of its own say­ing it didn’t be­lieve them. Spicer then de­nied that any apol­ogy had been made, or that the ad­min­is­tra­tion had any­thing to re­gret.

Se­nior US fig­ures in­clud­ing Barack Obama’s for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Su­san Rice have crit­i­cised the im­pli­ca­tion of the US’s “clos­est ally”. They know this is a dan­ger­ous game re­volv­ing around the pres­sure on White House of­fi­cials to sub­stan­ti­ate Trump’s al­le­ga­tions, the pres­i­dent’s fa­mous re­luc­tance to ad­mit mis­takes, and his sus­pi­cion of in­tel­li­gence agen­cies and their prod­uct.

Dan­ger­ous it is. The in­tel­li­gence re­la­tion­ship be­tween Bri­tain and the US is unique and pre­cious. It is crit­i­cal to our shared ef­forts to counter ter­ror­ism, Rus­sian ag­gres­sion, the cy­ber-at­tacks of China, the nu­clear threat from North Korea and much else. It is based on un­ques­tioned mu­tual trust be­tween op­er­a­tives and politi­cians on each side of the At­lantic.

That is some­thing both coun­tries have taken for granted since the sec­ond world war. 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 for­eign sec­re­tary, Boris John­son, is head­ing to Wash­ing­ton this week. He needs to make very clear that this is not a game.

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