STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump, in a series of tweets this weekend, accused his predecessor of wiretapping his offices in Trump Tower just ahead of the elections. A law enforcement official tells NPR's Carrie Johnson that FBI Director James Comey asked the Department of Justice to publicly deny Trump's claims. Also quick to reject it - James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence. Here he is on yesterday's "Meet The Press."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")
JAMES CLAPPER: I can't speak officially anymore, but I will say that for the part of the national security apparatus that I oversaw as DNI, there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president - the president-elect at the time whether - as a candidate or against his campaign.
INSKEEP: Now, if you carefully read White House statements after the president's tweets on Sunday, you see them backing away. The president said he just found out that this wiretapping happened. White House spokespeople on Sunday, however, said that if it happened, Congress should find out in an investigation. They did not claim actually to have any evidence. Let's talk this through with Senator Angus King of Maine, who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a committee that would investigate this if anybody does. Hi, Senator, good morning.
ANGUS KING: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Are you going to investigate?
KING: Yes, of course, we will. But I think it's important to try to figure out what happened here. There's a really good blog called "Just Security" blog. And you remember the old game we used to play in school called Telephone, where you whispered into somebody's ear and then the next person and the next person? And by the time it got to the last person, it had changed.
INSKEEP: Uh-huh (ph).
KING: It looks like what happened here, there was something - there was a mention of this back in November in a blog called "Heat Street," and then The Guardian picked it up, and then the BBC picked it up in January. And then it got picked up by, I think, the the conservative talk show host Mark Levin. And then Breitbart picked it up, and then the president read Breitbart and shot off the tweets. And as you follow the story through, there was nothing about phone tapping. It was an allegation of a FISA order and a warrant.
But, you know, the story really ended for me last night when Jim Clapper said, it didn't happen. He's the most credible source on all of this that I know - 50-year professional in intelligence, no partisanship that I've ever been able to determine. But the answer is I think that's how it all started. The president shouldn't have tweeted, but it's out there. And so we're going to try to track it down.
INSKEEP: And we should mention the end of that long chain of Telephone that you described - the Breitbart story came out Friday. It was said to be circulated in the White House Friday evening. And the president down in Florida began tweeting about this at 5:42 in the morning. Could he have just asked the FBI or intelligence agencies if this happened, rather than relying on that chain that you described?
KING: Of course. And, you know, my - I'm not in a position to give advice to the president of the United States. But I learned when I was governor, you can't obsess about the news and watch the cable or watch the news all the time. It will drive you nuts, and it'll provoke you to get either be angry or write responses or whatever. And, you know, to make a charge like this, which is an incredibly serious charge, based upon the story and Breitbart that was based upon three or four other stories, all of which modified themselves somewhat as they went down the chain, it's just not - it's not - I mean, it's a cliche. It's not presidential, and I don't really think it's responsible because...
INSKEEP: Now, we should be clear...
KING: ...That's a serious charge.
INSKEEP: We should be clear. We don't actually know that that was - for certain that that was the president's source, although it appears to be. The president hasn't said what his source is. But you mentioned a little bit of terminology there that I want to explain in the time we have left, Senator. You mentioned a FISA warrant. Isn't there a legal process through which the government could obtain permission to spy on Americans in some fashion?
KING: Yeah, the FISA stands for foreign intelligence - let's see...
KING: Foreign Intelligence Security Surveillance Act or - it's sometimes FISC, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance...
KING: Court - and this is a court that meets in secret because it involves intelligence gathering. And you have to - if you - you have to go before this court to get a warrant, just like the good old Fourth Amendment says, if you're going to look at information of U.S. - what they call U.S. persons. And so it requires an independent step so that the government, the FBI or the CIA or anybody else, NSA, doesn't have the right to go into United States people's email, telephone calls or anything else.
INSKEEP: Now, we should mention, we don't have confirmation even that there was a FISA warrant in this case. But one last thing I want to ask about in the few seconds we...
KING: Well, Jim Clapper - Jim Clapper did, yesterday morning, categorically say there wasn't.
INSKEEP: No FISA warrant, he says.
KING: Obviously, we've got to get to the bottom of that. But that's - when Clapper says that, generally you can take it to the bank.
INSKEEP: In a few seconds, could U.S. intelligence agencies relatively easily surveil Russians and others who are foreigners who are known to have had contact with the president's staff?
KING: Yes, and that's exactly how General Flynn got caught up in this. They routinely were surveilling the Russian ambassador, and then General Flynn got on the line with him and was picked up. Now, normally, they would so-called minimize any contact with an American person unless it involved the subject of the investigation, which was contacts between the campaign and the Russians...
INSKEEP: Got to stop...
KING: ...And therefore they had the transcripts of it.
INSKEEP: Senator King, got to stop you there. Thank you very much for your time, Senator. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.