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.
The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) first became aware of suspicious “interactions” between figures connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents in late 2015 , 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, a member of the “Five Eyes” spying alliance that also includes the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, 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 or his team or proactively seeking information. 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, falsely 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.