British spies were first to spot Trump team’s links with Russia
Britain’s spy agencies played a crucial role in alerting their counterparts in Washington to contacts between members of Donald Trump’s campaign team and Russian intelligence operatives, the Guardian has been told.
GCHQ first became aware in late 2015 of suspicious “interactions” between figures connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents, a source close to UK intelligence said.
This intelligence was passed to the US as part of a routine exchange of information, they added.
Over the next six months, until summer 2016, a number of western agencies shared further information on contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russians, sources said.
The European countries that passed on electronic intelligence – known as sigint – included Germany, Estonia and Poland.
Australia, also relayed material, one source said.
Another source suggested the Dutch and the French spy agency, the General Directorate for External Security or DGSE, were contributors.
It is understood that GCHQ was at no point carrying out a targeted operation against Trump.
The alleged conversations were picked up by chance as part of routine surveillance of Russian intelligence assets.
Over several months, different agencies targeting the same people began to see a pattern of connections that were flagged to intelligence officials in the US.
The issue of GCHQ’s role in the FBI’s ongoing investigation into possible cooperation between the Trump campaign and Moscow is highly sensitive.
In March Trump tweeted that Barack Obama had illegally “wiretapped” him in Trump Tower.
The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, claimed the “British spying agency” GCHQ had carried out the bugging.
Spicer cited an unsubstantiated report on Fox News.
Fox later distanced itself from the report.
The claims prompted an extremely unusual rebuke from GCHQ, which generally refrains from commenting on all intelligence matters.
The agency described the allegations first made by a former judge turned media commentator, Andrew Napolitano, as “nonsense”.
“They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored,” a spokesperson for GCHQ said.
Both US and UK intelligence sources acknowledge that GCHQ played an early, prominent role in kickstarting the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation.
One source called the British eavesdropping agency the “principal whistleblower”.
There are now multiple investigations going on in Washington into Trump campaign officials and Russia.
They include the FBI-led counter-espionage investigation and probes by both the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House committee, has expressed an interest in hearing from Christopher Steele, the former MI6 officer whose dossier accuses the president of long-term cooperation with Vladimir Putin’s Moscow.
Trump and Putin have both dismissed the dossier as fake.