LONDON - United Kingdom Minister of State for Security Ben Wallace downplayed the possibility that British intelligence spied on the Trump campaign in 2016, largely dismissing the claim as he declined to issue a specific denial in line with longstanding UK practice.
Wallace made his comments in an interview CNN during US President Donald Trump's official visit to the UK. Trump and his allies have in the past claimed, originally citing an uncorroborated account from Fox News, that Britain tapped phones in Trump Tower at the request of then-President Barack Obama.
Asked about the claim, Wallace stated the UK's traditional response of not confirming or denying questions of intelligence before suggesting the claim was wrong and that their intelligence officials had more pressing matters.
"I don't think our intelligence services have any spare capacity to spend time spying on our friends and allies," Wallace said. "You know, if you want to know what's going on in American politics, switch on the news, go to a press conference, and you can find out what's going on."
The controversy over the spying claim emerged early into Trump's tenure as president when, in 2017, the White House stood by citing the Fox News report in the face of a rare denial from GCHQ, the UK equivalent to the US' NSA, which has called the accusation "nonsense."
CNN later reported that British and other European intelligence agencies had intercepted communications between Trump's associates, Russian officials and other Russian individuals during the campaign and that the agencies passed those communications on to their US counterparts. CNN said at the time the agencies, including GCHQ, captured the communications during routine surveillance of the Russian individuals and were not targeting members of the Trump team, who were picked up through "incidental collection."
Trump has repeated a version of the original claim on social media since the 2017 back-and-forth, including in a tweet this past April.
Pressed in his CNN interview on Tuesday, Wallace declined to "speculate on intelligence matters" before again downplaying the spying claim.
"In the days of social media, there's an awful lot of speculation that goes on about these things," Wallace said. "There is no big conspiracy, and the idea that I would take an intelligence officer off a job of, I don't know, targeting al Qaeda in a place that's of mutual (interest) to us, to put him on spying of a campaign, of a presidential candidate, I think it's just not -- it's not going to be the reality."
CNN's Allison Malloy contributed to this report.
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