Trump administration must defuse crisis with its ally, says Sir Peter Westmacott, a former UK ambassador to the United States
US President Donald J. Trump’s support for an unsubstantiated claim that his predecessor, Barack Obama, asked Britain’s spy agency to eavesdrop on him is a “strange allegation” that “calls into question very important elements of our intelligence relationship,” said Sir Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to the United States and a distinguished ambassadorial fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“This sort of thing does not go on between such very close allies,” Westmacott said, adding, “the intelligence relationship between the US and UK is uniquely close and very precious. It would, in any case, be against US law for any American official to ask us to act in such a way.” Westmacott served as the UK’s ambassador to the United States from January 2012 to January 2016.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer first repeated the spying allegations made by Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano. Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, the espionage agency known as the GCHQ, flatly denied the allegations calling them “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous.”
In testimony to the House Intelligence Committee on March 20, at which Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey publicly confirmed that the Bureau is investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and possible links between the Trump campaign and Moscow, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers denied that the GCHQ had been asked to gather intelligence on Trump.
Both Trump and Spicer have refused to offer a public apology for their comments.
“All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it,” Trump said at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House on March 17 when asked by a German journalist about the allegation.
He added: “You shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox.”
Shepard Smith, a Fox News anchor, said on his show that Fox News “cannot confirm” Napolitano’s allegations. “Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now President of the United States was surveilled at any time, in any way, full stop,” Smith told his viewers.
Westmacott said he understood that a public apology may be difficult, but added: “It does seem to me that at the very least we need to have some kind of statement saying that Washington is happy to accept the British government’s assurances that nothing of this sort took place.”
US and British intelligence agencies, along with their counterparts from Australia, New Zealand and Canada, are members of the Five Eyes, which work closely on intelligence matters and do not spy on each other.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson will be visiting Washington this week. Patching up ties that have frayed over the espionage kerfuffle will likely be at the top of his agenda.
In London, meanwhile, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman confirmed on March 20 that she will trigger Article 50—which starts that process of the UK leaving the European Union—on March 29. It could take up to two years for the UK to exit the EU.
The UK’s move toward leaving the EU comes at a time when support for the Union is actually growing in Europe. While Trump has applauded the UK’s decision to leave the EU and predicted that other member states will soon follow suit, that appears not to be the case—for now.
Other EU member states are more concerned about tackling the problems facing the Union, said Westmacott. “They need to consolidate the Eurozone, they need to deal with the structural imbalances, and they need to deal with the migration crisis. Anyone thinking of following the UK example will obviously also want to see how the negotiations with the UK come out,” he contended.
“But the UK has no interest in others following suit: we want the EU to remain a strong and successful neighbor,” he added.
In a sign that the populist fever that has gripped the West may be breaking, the anti-Islam, anti-EU populist politician Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party was relegated to second place in elections this month by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Freedom and Democratic Party.
European leaders and officials heaved a sigh of relief.
Westmacott, however, struck a cautious note saying that it was too early to tell how far-right candidates and parties—Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party—would fare in elections in France and Germany later this year.
Peter Westmacott spoke in a phone interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from that interview.
Q: You served as the UK’s ambassador in Washington at a time when President Obama was in office. What is your reaction to the report, which the White House has publicly cited, that Obama asked GCHQ to spy on Donald Trump?
Westmacott: I was very surprised to hear this allegation, which, of course, follows on from President Trump’s earlier allegation that his telephones had been wiretapped by the former president.
As far as the UK is concerned, I was very disappointed because it calls into question very important elements of our intelligence relationship. This sort of thing does not go on between such very close allies. The intelligence relationship between the US and UK is uniquely close and very precious. It would, in any case, be against US law for any American official to ask us to act in such a way.
There would have to be a signed warrant from a senior British government minister. It is, to me, unthinkable that anyone would approve such activity.
Of course, I understand that it comes from reading out a report which came from Fox News and which may have originally come from the Russian broadcasting station, RT. It was not an assessment made by the [Trump] administration, but it was nevertheless a rather extraordinary thing to do especially when it was read into the public record with a supporting comment from the White House spokesman.
Q: Does the United States owe the UK an apology?
Westmacott: We certainly need to put this behind us. I understand that making apologies, especially in public, can sometimes be difficult. Private apologies are easier and there have been private contacts between the two governments. It does seem to me that at the very least we need to have some kind of statement saying that Washington is happy to accept the British government’s assurances that nothing of this sort took place.
Q: Why is the Five Eyes, and particularly the intelligence sharing relationship between the United States and the UK, so very important?
Westmacott: It goes back a very long way. It has its origins in the way we worked together during the Second World War. The Five Eyes is a very private understanding between five English-speaking countries, which shared the same objectives during the War and share the same values.
It is important because of the level of trust and confidentiality, which exists between the partners. The US-UK relationship is probably more important today than at any time since the Second World War, with the possible exception of certain difficult moments during the Cold War, because we have so many really worrying international issues to confront together.
These include terrorism, whether it is from ISIL or lone wolves or other organizations such as al Qaeda; the cyber threat; the Russian aggression that we have seen towards its neighbors and the West, in terms of territory but also information warfare; Syria; and many other parts of the world where there are threats to our interests.
Q: I would like to ask you about developments in the UK where Prime Minister May has signaled her intention to trigger Article 50 on March 29. Meanwhile, support for the EU is reportedly building on the Continent. Why are other EU member states not rushing for the exits?
Westmacott: In fact, the level of dissatisfaction with the EU in other member states is quite high. When the [British] referendum was held almost nine months ago, the UK was only halfway down the list in terms of countries where public opinion was disillusioned with the European Union.
I think that other member states are now looking at the current problems that the EU is facing. They need to consolidate the Eurozone, they need to deal with the structural imbalances, and they need to deal with the migration crisis. Anyone thinking of following the UK example will obviously also want to see how the negotiations with the UK come out. But the UK has no interest in others following suit: we want the EU to remain a strong and successful neighbor.
Q: What are your thoughts on the outcome of the Dutch election? Has the populism fever broken?
Westmacott: It is too early to say. We have seen evidence of populism and of broader concerns about being left behind by globalization, discontent with political elites, and economic insecurity in Britain and the United States.
We have had evidence of that mood in the Netherlands. In the end, there was great relief in Europe that Wilders’ party did not do better. It still came second, but it will not form part of the government.
What we don’t yet know is what will be the impact of the same general mood in the French and German elections. There is a possibility that Marine Le Pen of the National Front will do very well in the French elections. She is likely to get to the second round; most people say she is not likely to become the president—if she did, it would be a strong indicator of the opposite of your suggestion that the mood of populism has now peaked. We also don’t know how AfD is going to do in the German elections.
Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.