The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tucker Carlson is in a credibility battle with the NSA — and so far he’s losing

The National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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Time tends to warp in the vicinity of a presidential election, so you may have forgotten about one odd incident that occurred late last October.

On Oct. 29, Fox News host Tucker Carlson made a remarkable allegation. He had been sent a cache of documents offering revealing information about the family of the Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden. These were “documents that are directly relevant to the presidential campaign just six days from now,” Carlson insisted — but they had inexplicably vanished. A member of his staff had given them to UPS to send to Carlson in California, but they suddenly disappeared from the face of the Earth.

Over the next 24 hours, a lot of important details emerged. For example, what was being sent wasn’t a sheaf of papers but, instead, a thumb drive — meaning the documents could simply have been sent to Carlson electronically. Then, a flustered UPS located the drive in a Manhattan facility, where it had apparently been separated from its package. Everything was back on track for Carlson’s exposé on the Bidens.

That evening, though, Carlson reported more on what UPS had done, raising various allegations about the suspiciousness of UPS’s story (“… in a room where millions of high-value packages are handled, there are no security cameras”) and offering his own theory for what had occurred: “Someone, for some reason, opened our package and removed a flash drive containing documents that were damaging to the Biden family.”

Isn't that odd?

If you're curious what the actual documents said, you're not alone. As far as I can tell, Carlson never reported on them. He did, on that same evening and just after looping UPS into some sweeping pro-Biden conspiracy, talk about how he didn't want to target Joe Biden's son Hunter on personal terms. Those files “directly relevant to the presidential campaign” appear not to have been at all.

This anecdote is useful to remember given the current allegations that Carlson is hyping on his prime-time show. On Monday evening, he made another, more serious claim of institutions working against him.

“Yesterday,” he said, “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.”

This was not the top story of his show, instead airing toward the middle and after a bit of windup reiterating his past claims about how Biden’s administration had redirected the “war on terror … against American citizens, opponents of the regime.” This has been a theme of Carlson’s since Biden’s inauguration, conflating the administration’s efforts to target white supremacists and right-wing domestic terrorists with Republicans broadly.

He admitted his assertion was “a shocking claim” toward which he would normally be skeptical. But the person who had contacted him “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,” Carlson claimed. “Period.”

“The NSA captured that information without our knowledge and did it for political reasons,” he then said. “The Biden administration is spying on us. We have confirmed that.”

That's four claims, then, of increasing seriousness:

  1. The NSA had collected communications involving Carlson.
  2. This was part of an effort to “monitor” Carlson.
  3. The goal of that monitoring was to “take this show off the air.”
  4. The driver of this effort was “the NSA” or, more broadly, “the Biden administration.”

It’s useful to remember how the NSA works, something you might remember from discussions about a decade ago when the scale of its post-9/11 surveillance was first revealed through material stolen by former contractor Edward Snowden.

The NSA's mandate is to surveil foreign actors. That might mean collecting information about phone conversations, email messages or other points of contact around the world. It might also mean collecting information about such communications with Americans who are in contact with foreign parties who are under surveillance. In such cases, the identity of the American is supposed to be masked, hidden from view to protect that person. The NSA can obtain a warrant to surveil an American, something it seeks from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).

We also know that the agency does collect information on Americans broadly. The heart of the Snowden revelations centered on a massive program through which the NSA obtained metadata about conversations — things like call durations and participant phone numbers or email addresses — through a sweeping warrant approved by the FISC. It was also revealed that the agency had a Google-like tool, XKeyscore, that allowed it to search through reams of collected information.

This week, a criticism of the XKeyscore program from a member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a government group tasked with serving as a watchdog for such surveillance, was made public.

“What most concerned me was that we have a very powerful surveillance program that eight years or so after exposure, still has no judicial oversight,” Travis LeBlanc told The Washington Post, “and what I consider to be inadequate legal analysis and serious compliance infractions.”

Those “infractions” included a number of “compliance incidents,” that “may have involved improper surveillance of Americans’ communications,” according to The Post's Ellen Nakashima. At the time of the Snowden revelations, the improper use of surveillance tools to do things like spy on agents' romantic interests made headlines of their own.

This is all useful context for the first of Carlson's four claims. Is it possible that the NSA had collected communications involving Carlson? It is.

It's possible, for example, that Carlson was in contact with a foreign actor who was under surveillance. Earlier this year, he traveled to El Salvador to interview that country's president. It's almost certain that a foreign leader and his aides would be under surveillance. Or, perhaps, Carlson's been in contact with individuals in other countries — like, say, Ukraine — as part of his reporting. His claim that there was “no other possible source” for his communications implies that it was his end of the conversation that was being monitored. It's far more likely that the NSA was tuning in to the other end instead.

It is also possible someone at the NSA decided to use a tool like XKeyscore to see what came up for Tucker Carlson. That’s a far more serious situation both as a violation of law and when considering intent. Of course, it may also have been the case that someone friendly to Carlson decided to see what had been collected and then shared that with the Fox host. It’s hard to say. It also doesn’t explain why Carlson’s communications were apparently unmasked — that is, linked to him despite the protections that should exist for him as a citizen.

In an unusual statement, the NSA on Tuesday rejected Carlson's assertions. It read:

On June 28, 2021, Tucker Carlson alleged that the National Security Agency has been ‘monitoring our electronic communications and is planning to leak them in an attempt to take this show off the air.’ This allegation is untrue. 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.
NSA has a foreign intelligence mission. We target foreign powers to generate insights on foreign activities that could harm the United States. With limited exceptions (e.g. an emergency), NSA may not target a US citizen without a court order that explicitly authorizes the targeting.

As many have noted, this is a careful denial. Saying that Carlson “has never been an intelligence target,” for example, doesn’t preclude his communications having been swept up in the targeting of someone else. It’s also easy to parse the assertion that Carlson’s claim is “untrue” by trying to determine where it tips over into falsehood. Not to be pedantic, but the use of “and” to link the monitoring and the planned “leak” means that if either is false, the entire sentence can be declared false.

On Tuesday night, Carlson told his viewers that he had called the office of NSA Director Paul Nakasone — a “highly political left-wing four-star general” — and spoken with NSA officials who had “refused to say” if they had read his emails, “and then they refused even to explain why they couldn’t answer that simple question.”

The answer to that is pretty clear, as we've seen from other government agencies at other times. If the NSA were to start denying that it had collected information even when it hadn't, it would mean that those occasions on which it wouldn't deny having collected information were almost certainly ones where it had. It's as though I ask you every day if you ate the last doughnut and every day you say you didn't — until one day you simply refuse to answer. What might my natural assumption be?

The more important part of what Carlson said on Tuesday, though, was related to the other three parts of his original claim. This is how it often works for Carlson: A grain of believability is inflated to a scandal of world-historic proportions. Like, say, UPS messing up a package delivery.

“Some faceless hack in a powerful government spy agency decides he doesn't like what you think, so he is going to hurt you and there's nothing you can do about it. That could happen to you,” Carlson said. “Now that the Biden administration has classified tens of millions of patriotic Americans,” he later added, “the kind who served in the military and fly flags in front of their homes as potential domestic terrorists, white supremacist saboteurs, we're going to see a whole lot more of this kind of thing, a whole lot more.”

This is where everything tips into the surreal. It's conceivable that the NSA has collected information pertaining to Carlson and even that this then made its way back to him. There are certainly reasons to think that Carlson might be inventing or inflating what occurred, given his track record, but it is conceivable.

It is also true that the government’s own track record on talking about its surveillance of Americans is lousy. Former national intelligence director James R. Clapper Jr. directly misled Congress during a 2013 hearing when asked about it. We are dealing here with two parties with credibility issues, certainly.

But Carlson's claims that the agency is monitoring his communications in an ongoing basis, that it is doing so to harm him and his program and, most importantly, that it is doing so at the agency and not the individual level are much more serious claims than simply his announcement that his communications were being collected. He's alleging not just incidental gathering of information but, as he framed it to his audience, his being targeted for political and punitive reasons. As might happen to them.

This is the big claim, and it's one for which we have no evidence beyond Carlson's presentation of what he claims he was told by an unnamed whistleblower. As has been reported, there has been no effort by Fox News's corporate arm to call the government to account, as a media outlet normally would if the government were targeting its journalists. There has been no significant exploration of Carlson's claims on other Fox News shows. The story — that the president or a government agency is illegally trying to dig up information to punish a reporter in defiance of the First Amendment — wasn't even the top story on Carlson's own show on either night. It's just something he got to when he got to it, this charge of Nixonian excess.

This is how it often works for Carlson. He simply alleges that someone or something disliked by his audience has Done Something Bad, and they shift the burden onto Carlson’s opponents to disprove the claim. It was only a week or two ago that Carlson alleged the FBI had been integrated into the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, something that was embraced as obviously true by many on the right but for which there’s no real evidence.

It’s here that we are obliged to point out that, in Carlson’s defense during a defamation lawsuit last year, Fox attorneys asserted “reasonable” viewers would understand the host’s claims as being opinion and not statements of fact. In other words, that his claims should not be taken at face value.

Maybe the NSA is trying to take him down. Maybe UPS was trying to bury bad news about Hunter Biden. Or maybe, just maybe, Tucker Carlson is misrepresenting something to make compelling television.