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WASHINGTON: Chiefs of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency confirmed for the first time on Monday that their agencies were investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.

But FBI director James Comey also said that his agency had no information to support President Donald Trump’s claim that his predecessor ordered surveillance of his campaign office during the elections.

NSA chief Admiral Mike Rogers said that his organisation had not asked Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency to spy on Mr Trump — a claim that was repeated earlier this week by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

Both appeared before the House Intelligence Committee to clarify their agencies’ positions on the two issues.

Responding to a question about the wiretapping, Mr Comey said: “I have no information that supports those tweets (about wiretapping). We have looked carefully inside the FBI and found nothing.”

In a series of tweets earlier this month, President Trump claimed that former US President Barack had ordered the tapping of his phones at New York’s Trump Tower, which was also his election headquarters.

Mr Comey rejected this claim as incorrect but acknowledged that his agency was holding a “very complex” investigation into the alleged Russian interference in the US election, “We will follow the facts wherever they lead,” he added. Admiral Rogers said Moscow had also taken similar “active measures” in Europe, where France and Germany are holding elections this year.” I fully expect they will maintain this level of activity,” he added.

The Obama administration had initiated a probe into allegations that Russia tried to influence the 2016 presidential election and focused its investigation on a series of meetings between senior Trump aides and the Russian ambassador in Washington.

But Obama aides denied tapping the phones and urged Congress to hold a hearing to determine if President Trump’s claim was true or false.

On Monday, the Committee held its first public hearing on this issue. When a Democratic Congressman, Adam Schiff, asked Mr Comey if he could confirm or deny the claim that Mr Obama had ordered tapping of Mr Trump’s phones, he said no president could order such surveillance. He said the Justice Department had asked him to tell the committee that they too had no such information.

While acknowledging that his agency was probing the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, Mr Comey said they were trying to determine the nature of links, if any, between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government, and “whether any crimes were committed.”

The two allegations – the Russian interference and the wiretapping – have become a serious dispute between the Republican and Democratic parties, which also was noticed during Monday’s hearing.

Republicans are using the wiretapping allegation to draw a parallel between the Obama and Nixon administrations, — which was impeached and forced to resign over similar allegations. Democrats want to use the hearing to clear Mr Obama’s name.

The FBI director said his agency did not usually acknowledge a probe but he was making an exception in the Russian interference case because “in unusual circumstances, where it is in the public interest, “it may be appropriate to do so.”

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2017