President Trump claims that the British were spying on him at President Obama’s request—a substantial charge to be making of an American ally, let alone a former president, without any proof. But do you want to hear a dirty little secret about Trump’s allegations? An identical scenario to the one Trump describes actually happened in the 1980s.
President Trump is entering the third week of his claims that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 election season. First, Trump made the unfounded claims with precisely zero indication of where he’d gotten the information. But later last week, the White House had settled on a theory that the Brits were behind the spying, a theory first raised by Fox News pundit Andrew Napolitano.
Specifically, the White House claimed that perhaps GCHQ (Britain’s top spy agency) was asked to spy for Obama, circumventing laws that prohibit agencies like the CIA and NSA from spying domestically. And though White House Press Secretary reportedly apologized to Britain for the allegations, the White House has walked back reports of an apology. And while Trump has still offered no proof, there’s actually a precedent for this precise kind of arrangement between Five Eyes partners—Five Eyes being the spying alliance between the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
The 1994 book Spyworld was written by Mike Frost, a former intelligence officer for Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE), a bit like Canada’s version of the NSA. The book details the ways in which Canadian intelligence officers helped Americans bug embassies around the world during the Cold War. But one of the most shocking claims in the book is that the British had asked Canadian intelligence officers to spy on some British politicians to circumvent Britain’s privacy laws.
As Frost told it in his book:
A request had come through GCHQ from [British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher asking if CSE could “do something” to aid her in finding out if two of her Cabinet ministers were, to use her terms, “on side.”
Frost alleged that his Canadian colleague, Frank Bowman, was sent to London in 1983 with the mission to spy on the two unnamed British politicians at Thatcher’s request. Bowman then made audio recordings of the conversations between the two politicians and handed them directly to GCHQ. The idea behind getting the Canadians to spy on British politicians was that GCHQ would have a way to deny charges of spying on the country’s own politicians if the situation was ever made public.
Although the British denied these allegations when they were revealed, Frost insisted that he carried out similar missions for the NSA in Norway and France. Frost left the CSE in 1990, allegedly forced out over his alcoholism, and his book was widely sneered at in the intelligence community, despite how plausible each and every charge in the book is given what we now know about spying in the 20th century.
As with all things espionage-related, the truth is murky and difficult to discern. There’s no doubt at this point that the now-disgraced National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was picked up talking to Russian politicians because those politicians were being targeted for spying by American and allied spy agencies. The American intelligence community has all kinds of alliances outside its strongest between the US and UK.
And even though Trump seems to be getting all his information from Fox News, rather than say, asking the director of the FBI or CIA, it’s certainly a technical possibility. The part that kind of ruins it is that Trump’s sources aren’t anyone inside GCHQ or any other reputable whistleblower—it’s coming from his seemingly sole source of information: the talking box in the White House.