White House wants US Congress to probe claim of wiretaps

Obama spokesman denies claim of phone surveillance; Trump urged to show proof

WASHINGTON • The White House yesterday asked the US Congress to examine whether the Obama administration abused its executive "investigative authority" during the 2016 presidential election campaign, as part of the ongoing congressional probe into Russia's influence on the election.

The request came a day after President Donald Trump alleged, without supporting evidence, that then President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of the phones in Trump Tower in New York, Mr Trump's campaign headquarters then.

In a series of four early morning tweets last Saturday, Mr Trump said Mr Obama had been "wire tapping" his New York offices and suggested that the former president had meddled with the "very sacred election process".

Mr Obama's supposed actions, Mr Trump said, amounted to McCarthyism. "Bad (or sick) guy!" the 45th President tweeted about the 44th, insisting the surveillance efforts resulted in "nothing found".

Under the law on foreign-intelligence surveillance inside the US, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent would need to show a federal judge that there is probable cause that the target is an "agent of a foreign power" - and that requires more than just talking to, say, the Russian ambassador.

Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said in a statement: "Neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any US citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false."

After his tweets, Mr Trump faced calls to supply evidence to back up his claim.

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska issued a statement demanding that the President reveal everything he knows about any wiretaps or warrants.

"The President today made some very serious allegations, and the informed citizens that a republic requires deserve more information," he said.

Senior US officials with knowledge of a wide-ranging federal investigation into Russian interference in the election, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said last Saturday that there had been no wiretap of Mr Trump.

During the 2016 campaign, the federal authorities began an investigation into links between Mr Trump's associates and the Russian government.

His aides declined to clarify last Saturday whether the President's allegations were based on briefings from intelligence or law enforcement officials or something else, like a news report.

But a senior White House official said that the President's chief counsel, Mr Donald F. McGahn II, was working to secure access to what Mr Mr McGahn believed to be an order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, authorising some form of surveillance related to Mr Trump and his associates.

The official offered no evidence to support the notion that such an order exists. It would be a highly unusual breach of the Justice Department's traditional independence on law enforcement matters for the White House to order it to turn over such an investigative document.

Some say Mr Trump may have been prompted by a report on conservative news website Breitbart and commentary from talk radio host Mark Levin suggesting that the Obama administration used "police state" tactics to monitor the Trump team.

Wiretaps in a foreign intelligence probe cannot legally be directed at a US facility without probable cause - reviewed by a federal judge - that the phone lines or Internet addresses at the facility were being used by agents of a foreign power or by someone spying for or acting on behalf of a foreign government.

Under the law on foreign-intelligence surveillance inside the US, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent would need to show a federal judge that there is probable cause that the target is an "agent of a foreign power" - and that requires more than just talking to, say, the Russian ambassador.

REUTERS, NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 06, 2017, with the headline 'White House wants US Congress to probe claim of wiretaps'. Print Edition | Subscribe