The National Security Agency’s internal watchdog confirmed Tuesday an investigation into the conspiratorial claims of Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who in June alleged a “whistleblower” had come forth to disclose a plot by the Biden administration to sabotage his career—purportedly by leaking materials obtained via an illegal wiretap.
While the government’s long history of abusing its surveillance powers makes giving it the benefit of the doubt difficult if not foolhardy, Carlson’s own record of proffering conspiracy theories and false and misleading claims rival that of any rogue agency. That in mind, the decision by the NSA’s inspector general to probe the accusations seems justified if only by the sheer number of Americans consuming Carlson’s diatribes daily; not to mention that Carlson, who is decidedly not an impartial commentator—even according to his own lawyers—is still a member of the broader news media, and like any U.S. citizen, has a constitutional right not to be spied on by his own government, illegally.
Feigning knowledge of an investigation before it even begins would be imprudent, but the known facts of the case—Carlson’s own activities and statements and those of the NSA—suggest that, so far, of all the possible outcomes, one is more probable than the rest: That Carlson’s name has been referenced by one or more foreign intelligence targets, whose communications U.S. spies lawfully intercepted.
What’s more, it seems likely that we eventually hear how U.S. officials believed that intelligence was worthless without knowing the name of the American being discussed by those targets; a process familiar to avid news readers at this point know as “unmasking.”
Such a finding would be the best possible outcome for the NSA. It would effectively absolve the agency of any wrongdoing and discredit Carlson’s claim. That said, it seems far-fetched to assume Carlson would ever accept such a finding—or any result, really, that doesn’t place him square at the center of some nefarious plot. And why on earth would he?
Regardless of what facts investigators turn up, Fox News will undoubtedly use the process to continue painting Carlson as the victim of a Deep State conspiracy. (At the corporate level, Fox has already backed Carlson’s claims.) The network will likely milk the story for all it’s worth, doing its best to cast its own political nemeses at the head of an illegal spying operation, one ripped straight from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel.
The majority of Carlson’s 3 million nightly viewers, who are conditioned to believe sensational claims over factual ones, will buy into that narrative, lock, stock, and barrel. The minority who aren’t as easily convinced is just as unlikely to abandon him over it. In effect, Fox News has already won its war against the NSA. In the end, the watchdog report will only satisfy those already skeptical of Carlson, whose reputation for ducking the truth is well deserved and hard-earned.
Within days of Carlson initially airing his claims, the NSA moved to rebuff him in what reporters reveled in describing as a “highly unusual” announcement. The agency asserted that Carlson had never been an “intelligence target” and that the so-called “plans” to “take his program off the air” were entirely make-believe. (The agency had not, if memory serves correctly, ever singled out a person before just to say they weren’t being spied on.)
The NSA’s denial, which is not absolute, cannot be interpreted to rule out the following scenarios:
- Carlson was communicating with a foreign intelligence target overseas whose conversations were being monitored by the NSA.
- Carlson was communicating with an intelligence target on U.S. soil whose conversations were being monitored by the FBI.
- The FBI or NSA intercepted communication of an intelligence target mentioning Carlson’s name.
We first learned in July that at least one of these possibilities is almost certainly true when Axios political reporter Jonathan Swain revealed that Carlson had been in contact with “Kremlin intermediaries” in an apparent effort to book Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. The intelligence community’s primary focus is gathering information about agents of hostile foreign powers. The fact that such an agent happens to be communicating with an American has little bearing on whether they’re surveilled.
One would imagine, if anything, that only enhances the odds.
By August, Carlson had moved on to host a week’s worth of shows in Budapest, where he met with, and lavished much affection on, Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Preparations for such a visit would, again, have required Carlson, or one of his surrogates, to broker plans with foreigners who are undoubtedly targets of NSA surveillance.
If, for a moment, we set aside Carlson’s ancillary (and less believable) claim—that the surveillance he was caught in was devised to discredit him—there still remains one outstanding issue: whether someone in the government acted improperly by “unmasking” Carlson in some highly classified report.
In the course of monitoring foreign targets, the NSA acknowledges routinely intercepting communications involving what it calls “U.S. persons”—a term that encompasses not just people but companies without ties to a foreign power. The job of intelligence analysts is chiefly to shift through raw data and produce classified reports on individuals and events with some bearing on national security. When those reports involve a U.S. person, it’s required to delete or “mask” that identity, replacing it with a “generic term or symbol.”
There are at least eight justifications for unmasking a U.S. person. They include basic rationales like the information being already public, or the person giving their consent; they include reasons of safety, such as a person being involved in terrorism or being the target of a crime; as well as indicators of espionage: a person secretly acting as an agent of a foreign power or planning to disseminate state secrets to an unauthorized person.
Perhaps the best-known justification is that the information underlying the report is simply unintelligible without knowing the identities of the people involved—when “the identity of the United States person is necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or assess its importance,” as the NSA puts it.
The names of officials who can approve an unmasking request are secret, but the process has been described by the NSA’s privacy officer as a strict legal review; fewer than two dozen agency officials are said to possess that authority. Media reports have suggested that unmasking requests are rarely refused, but also note that many classified reports are only viewed by a handful of executive branch officials. Only the president can choose to make that information public; doing so otherwise would be a felony.
For all of President Trump’s ado about the unmasking that took place under his predecessor, the number of such requests approved under Trump skyrocketed in his second year in office. Whereas in President Obama’s final year in office, more than 9,200 requests were approved, that figure rose in 2018 to more than 16,700. (The number of approved requests fell again to around 10,000 the following year.)
According to the Washington Post’s Shane Harris, the uptick may be explained by the U.S. government working harder to warn people and businesses who are targeted by foreign governments. “Foreign computer hackers have aggressively stepped up their efforts in recent years to steal private communications or pilfer trade secrets from U.S. companies,” Harris notes.
One question that lingers—beyond the identity and motivation of Carlson’s so-called “whistleblower” source—is the impact of Carlson revealing to foreign targets that the U.S. has monitored their talks. Carlson’s high-level dealings with Moscow, Budapest, and presumably other foreign governments, suggest those targets may be of some importance to the nation’s intelligence keepers.
Even then, Carlson can’t really be shamed for not keeping that knowledge to himself. It’s the government’s job, after all—not the media’s—to keep its methods and sources a secret. It’s a stretch to imagine that many public figures, having learned they’d been featured in some classified document, would choose to take that knowledge to the grave.
Update, 8/12: A Fox News spokesperson reached out with the following statement:
“We are gratified to learn the NSA’s egregious surveillance of Tucker Carlson will now be independently investigated. As we have said, for the NSA to unmask Tucker Carlson or any journalist attempting to secure a newsworthy interview is entirely unacceptable and raises serious questions about their activities as well as their original denial, which was wildly misleading.”