NSA review finds that Tucker Carlson’s communications were not targeted
The NSA has found no evidence to support Tucker Carlson’s accusations that the agency had been spying on him in an effort to knock his show off the air, two people familiar with the matter told The Record.
An examination by the spy agency, prompted by congressional inquiries, found that the Fox News host’s communications were not targeted — as the NSA has previously stated publicly — nor intercepted through so-called “incidental collection,” where the U.S. government sometimes obtains the emails or phone calls of Americans in contact with a foreign target under surveillance, according to these people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Correspondence between intelligence agencies and oversight authorities are conducted through classified means.
Instead, the nation's top electronic spy agency found that Carlson was mentioned in communications between third parties and his name was subsequently revealed through “unmasking,” a process in which relevant government officials can request the identities of American citizens in intelligence reports to be divulged provided there is an official reason, such as helping them make sense of the intelligence documents they are reviewing.
The NSA obscures the names of Americans mentioned in its finished products in an effort to protect their privacy.
The sources declined to comment on who mentioned Carlson in their communications.
"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," a Fox News spokesperson told The Record.
The NSA declined to comment.
Axios reported that the television host had been in contact with Kremlin middlemen located in the U.S. about the possibility of an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin before he leveled his charges against the NSA.
It remains unclear how Carlson gleaned he had been mentioned in an intelligence product.
A former government official speculated that one possible way he learned about it was that FBI officials — who had requested and viewed the NSA’s report — offered Carlson what’s known as a “defensive briefing,” where agents warned him he was the target in a potential intelligence influence operation by foreign adversaries.
In any briefing, the FBI wouldn’t reveal any details about where or how they obtained the information. But the Fox News host — who, along with former President Donald Trump and other top conservatives, has railed against elements of the intelligence community as part of a fictitious “deep state” — could have concluded that he was being spied on.
The second possibility is that there is a leak in the national security apparatus and someone illegally disclosed the classified information contained in the report to Carlson, which would trigger a series of actions within the NSA, the FBI and the Justice Department to potentially uncover it, the official said.
Last month Carlson claimed “we heard from a whistleblower within the U.S. government who reached out to warn us that the NSA … is monitoring our electronic communications and is planning to leak them in an attempt to take this show off the air.”
He said his source was someone “who is in a position to know” and had “repeated back to us information about a story that we are working on that could have only come directly from my texts and emails."
Carlson alleged that the monitoring was politically motivated, but did not offer specific evidence to support his claims.
"The NSA captured that information without our knowledge and did it for political reasons," he said. "The Biden administration is spying on us. We have confirmed that.”
The following evening Carlson said — despite the NSA’s rare public statement — that the White House had not offered a direct denial and accused the Biden administration of trying to “intimidate” him.
He went on to allege that the NSA — which by law is tasked with gathering intelligence about potential foreign threats by using authorized tools to hoover up emails, phone calls, texts and other electronic data — "routinely" spies on Americans and that his viewers might be next.
“Some faceless hack in a powerful government spy agency decides he doesn't like what you think so he's going to hurt you and there's nothing you can do about it. That could happen to you,” Carlson said.
The results of the NSA review have been shared with both the House and Senate Intelligence committees, according to the two individuals.
“Anytime you see something like that reported or alleged, you have to look into it. As of now, I've seen nothing. But that doesn't mean something couldn't emerge in the future. Anybody that makes that sort of allegation publicly … you can't just ignore it.”— Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
The examination’s outcome is likely to have little impact in the Senate, where the Democrat-controlled committee has steered clear of Carlson’s allegations due to the lack of evidence or the “whistleblower” coming forward.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the panel’s vice chair, said he has made requests to the NSA for information about Carlson’s assertion that the country’s largest intelligence organization aimed to boot him from the airwaves.
“Anytime you see something like that reported or alleged, you have to look into it,” he told The Record, noting that some responses had already come in, though others are outstanding. “As of now, I've seen nothing. But that doesn't mean something couldn't emerge in the future. Anybody that makes that sort of allegation publicly … you can't just ignore it.”
The findings could have major ramifications in the House, though.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called for an investigation into Carlson's claims and asked Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, to investigate the matter.
Democrats believe the GOP inquiry is an attempt to manufacture controversy around the clandestine community and embarrass the Biden administration. Several members believe the effort is driven by lingering anger among Republicans that Michael Ellis, who previously worked as a lawyer for the panel's GOP, was ousted from his post as NSA’s top lawyer after one day on the job due to an inspector general investigation.
The NSA’s answers, which thus far suggest no wrongdoing by the agency, might be enough to satisfy concerns surrounding Carlson’s allegations.
Or the mere mention of unmasking will once again be seized on by Trump’s congressional allies who alleged throughout his presidency that intelligence officials abused the process to leak names of transition personnel, most notably Michael Flynn, communicating with foreign officials.
Nunes launched a probe into the unmasking process when he led the House Intelligence Committee but it ultimately fizzled after finding no evidence of wrongdoing.
Spokespersons for McCarthy and Nunes did not respond to requests for comment.
3:57 p.m. ET: Updated to include a statement from a Fox News spokesperson.
Martin Matishak is a senior cybersecurity reporter for The Record. He spent the last five years at Politico, where he covered Congress, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community and was a driving force behind the publication's cybersecurity newsletter.