As reported Friday in The Record, an NSA examination has concluded that Carlson wasn’t targeted and that his communications were not swept up via “incidental collection,” whereby the government secures emails or phone calls of U.S. citizens when they have contact with foreign nationals. Rather, Carlson’s name was merely mentioned between “third parties,” The Record reported.
Compare that with what Carlson alleged in his opening salvo against the NSA on June 28: “Yesterday, we heard from a whistleblower within the U.S. government who reached out to warn us that the NSA, the National Security Agency, is monitoring our electronic communications and is planning to leak them in an attempt to take this show off the air.”
There was little in the way of equivocation in Carlson’s delivery. “The NSA captured that information without our knowledge and did it for political reasons,” he claimed. “The Biden administration is spying on us. We have confirmed that.” The confirmation came through a “whistleblower,” said Carlson — somebody who “repeated back to us information about a story that we are working on that could have only come directly from my texts and emails. There’s no other possible source for that information. Period.”
The next night, Carlson stayed on the story, recounting a contentious discussion with NSA officials about the case. “We can read your personal texts, we can read your personal emails, we can send veiled threats your way to brush you back if we don’t like your politics,” said Carlson, providing his abridgment of the message from the agency’s leadership. “We can do anything. We’re our own country, and there’s literally nothing you can do about it. We’re in charge — you’re not.” The NSA itself, meanwhile, released a statement saying, in part, “Tucker Carlson has never been an intelligence target of the Agency and the NSA has never had any plans to try to take his program off the air.”
Here’s the detail that’ll keep the story rotating among Carlson’s audience: His name was “unmasked” as part of an often-used government procedure. The NSA monitors foreign targets, a job that often turns up mentions of U.S. citizens who wind up in the vacuumed communications for whatever reason. The resulting intelligence reports keep the names of the U.S. persons anonymous, though U.S. officials may request that the identities be revealed, or unmasked, to better understand the intelligence. “Unmasking” became a right-wing obsession via the non-scandal relating to Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn’s discussions with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
It’s no wonder that Carlson wound up in foreign surveillance, either. As Axios’ Jonathan Swan reported on July 7, the Fox News host was seeking to line up an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin via Kremlin intermediaries. That’s the sort of thing that can prompt some chatter among foreign surveillance targets.
Fox News issued this statement about the turn of events: “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.”
That statement was supplied to The Record and attributed to a “Fox News spokesperson,” not to any particular official. We asked the network for a name to place behind it, and got none. That’s no trifling matter, because of the statement’s disconnect from reality. Instead of addressing the factual shortcomings in Carlson’s original allegations, the statement all but accuses the NSA of wrongdoing, when there’s no evidence thereof.
“Whatever’s going on, Tucker has the burden of demonstrating that something nefarious happened,” says national security lawyer Mark Zaid, who last week issued a statement defending his client, Capitol police officer Harry Dunn, against an attack from Carlson. One possible scenario for unmasking Carlson’s identity would have been to alert him that the Kremlin was fixing to target him in some way, Zaid says. Once they determined his identity, the authorities could warn him. But that’s just a scenario, one that Zaid doubts. “I have not seen any evidence that the NSA has done anything inappropriate or questionable,” Zaid says.
On Friday night, Mark Steyn subbed in for Carlson on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and said that unmasking can occur only “in extraordinary circumstances.” Those “extraordinary circumstances” occurred more than 45,000 times from September 2015 to the end of 2019.
Moving away from the minutiae, this affair establishes Carlson’s unchecked dominion at Fox News. His original claims on June 28 paralyzed the network, with the PR division declining to issue a statement in defense of the host, and the so-called “straight news” folks ignoring the story. It was a mess waiting to be debunked.
When that debunking finally came, Fox News executives had a choice: They could force Carlson to amend his outlandish claims, or they could sign on to his deceptive package, a tack that required casting unsubstantiated doubt on the government’s actions. Those executives chose to side with Carlson’s fantasy, ratings and money.
They also chose chaos. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Carlson’s provocations, it’s that they need to be more outrageous with each iteration. Any host who thrives on audience titillation, after all, cannot ratchet back the material. Expect the next conspiracy showcased on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” to be even more far-fetched.
*Updated to include information on Zaid’s statement regarding Carlson.