Treat Tucker Carlson’s NSA Snooping Claims Seriously, but Not Literally
Toward the end of June, Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson made a remarkable on-air claim: He told viewers that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been reading his emails and planned to leak the contents in order to try to get his show off the air. He said a “whistleblower within the U.S. government” told him about the plan.
If the claim were true in the exact way that Carlson said it, this would be an outrageous abuse of the NSA’s power. The job of the NSA is to monitor foreign intelligence to track down spies and terrorists, not snoop on American journalists.
The NSA’s response was pretty lackluster and didn’t exactly close the door on the possibility that there was a kernel of truth in Carlson’s claims. The agency responded (which itself is unusual) that Carlson’s claim that it “was monitoring [his] electronic communications and is planning to leak them in an attempt to take him off the air” was untrue and that 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.”
I’ve been covering the NSA and surveillance issues for Reason since Edward Snowden’s leaks and through the twists and turns of the investigation surrounding then-President Donald Trump and his associates’ interactions with Russian representatives. I immediately noticed the hole in this denial: Carlson does not actually have to be the “target” of the NSA for the agency to have been able to read his communications. Many of Carlson’s claims could be true even if he were simply communicating with somebody else who was the target of NSA monitoring.
Sure enough, on Wednesday night, Axios reported that Carlson had been communicating with intermediaries to try and arrange for an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is therefore extremely likely that at least one or more of the people Carlson communicated with (some of whom Axios reports had direct ties to the Kremlin) were legitimate targets of NSA surveillance. And therefore, the NSA did, in fact, probably get access to whatever emails were part of this discussion.
This means that the insistence by the NSA that it didn’t “target” Carlson is accurate, but it also means that Carlson’s claim that the NSA had read his emails may be accurate, at least to the extent that they were emails to the actual surveillance target.
This is colloquially known as a “backdoor search,” which is a way for t
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