The White House said it was not accusing Britain of spying on Donald Trump when his spokesman cited a news item suggesting that British intelligence had conducted surveillance on the then presidential candidate.
A White House statement on March 17 said spokesman Sean Spicer “was simply pointing to public reports, not endorsing any specific story” when he cited a news item saying Britain's GCHQ intelligence agency had spied on Trump when he was a presidential candidate.
Spicer made the comments during a press conference, citing Fox News television analyst Andrew Napolitano, who suggested that GCHQ helped President Barack Obama spy on Trump before the 2016 presidential election to circumvent U.S. laws.
A GCHQ spokesperson said that Napolitano's "allegations about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May later said the United States had promised it would not repeat the claim.
Britain's ambassador to Washington, Kim Darroch, spoke directly to Spicer, but May's spokesman refused to say whether the U.S. administration had apologized.
The White House’s March 17 statement acknowledged that Darroch had expressed concerns directly to Spicer and the U.S. national security adviser, Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster.
“Mr. Spicer and General McMaster explained that Mr. Spicer was simply pointing to public reports, not endorsing any specific story,” the White House statement said.
James Slack, a spokesman for May, said an intelligence agreement between the United States, Britain, and other allies would prevent such spying.
"The fact is, within the Five Eyes pact, we cannot use each other's capabilities to circumvent our laws," he said. "It's a situation that simply wouldn't arise."
Britain and the United States -- along with Australia, Canada and New Zealand -- are part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance forged after World War II.
In a Twitter post on March 4, Trump claimed that Obama ordered wiretaps of his New York offices -- an accusation that a spokesman for has Obama flatly denied.
Republican and Democratic leaders of the U.S. Senate intelligence committee said on March 16 that there were "no indications" Trump’s offices were wiretapped before or during the campaign.
With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, and BBC