The United States has "made a formal apology" to the U.K. for White House press secretary Sean Spicer's endorsement of an unsubstantiated claim by a Fox News commentator that a British intelligence service gave then-President Obama transcripts of intercepted Donald Trump conversations, the U.K. Telegraph reports.
Spicer cited the report during a contentious press conference Thursday at the White House while responding to a question about the joint statement of Senate Intelligence Committee leaders Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, and Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, that the committee has seen "no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016." While reading a long list of news items about surveillance activities during the campaign, Spicer said the following:
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-finding agency. So, simply by having two people saying to them president needs transcripts of conversations involving candidate Trump, conversations involving president-elect Trump, he's able to get it and there's no American fingerprints on this."
Napolitano is a former New Jersey state judge and right-wing talking head who used to be Glenn Beck's backup host; he is not a national security reporter or former national security official, and there's been no outside substantiation of his report that Obama used the British to circumvent rules about spying on U.S. citizens. Per the original Fox News segment, Napolitano's specific claim is that the "transcripts" that the British gave Obama actually came originally from an "NSA database" that is generated via the NSA's capability to intercept all telephone and electronic communication inside the U.S.—a "database" to which he says the British have "24-7 access."
In an official statement, the British signals-intelligence service objected strenuously to Napolitano's claim after Spicer cited it:
Recent allegations made by media commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct 'wiretapping' against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored."
The U.S. has apparently backed down, the Telegraph says:
Intelligence sources told The Telegraph that both Mr Spicer and General McMaster, the US National Security Adviser, have apologised over the claims. "The apology came direct from them," a source said.
General McMaster contacted Sir Mark Lyall Grant, the Prime Minister's National Security adviser, to apologise for the comments. Mr Spicer conveyed his apology through Sir Kim Darroch, Britain's US ambassador.
Per the Washington Post's Abby Phillip, the administration is now also claiming that Spicer didn't mean to "endorse" Napolitano's report:
WH official says Spicer and McMaster "explained" to U.K. Ambassador that he was just pointing to media reports not endorsing pic.twitter.com/qJRrtePO5K— Abby D. Phillip (@abbydphillip) March 17, 2017
Sure, reading a report aloud from the podium at the White House and identifying it as evidence "that something was going on during the 2016 election" is a strange way to not endorse something, but I guess that's politics for you.