NSA: We never targeted Tucker Carlson's communications with an eye to getting him kicked off the air

As others have noted, this statement is slippery in what it does and doesn’t deny.

Does that mean they did target his communications, just without plans to use those communications against him politically? Or does it mean they are reading his communications but without “targeting” him specifically? That’s the likeliest scenario for how his texts and emails might have ended up being accessed by the NSA, that they were swept up “incidentally” in the course of targeting some foreigner whom Carlson is in touch with.

You can parse the statement even more finely than that. Conceivably they collected his communications incidentally and are planning to leak them in order to embarrass him — but not in the expectation that it’ll cause Fox to cancel him.

Any of those scenarios would be a mega-scandal — targeting Carlson without a FISA warrant or intending to share his texts and emails with a third party for any reason, even if they were collected lawfully.

It may be that the agency is reluctant to say definitively that it doesn’t have his communications because they very well might and aren’t sure. They cast an enormous net abroad and drag back lots of international texts, emails, and phone calls from Americans. If they flatly deny that they have anything from Tucker and then discover later that something of his did end up in the net, what do they do? Cover it up? Disclose it and then be accused of having lied earlier? To put that another way, if you or I accused the NSA of harvesting our communications, would their denial look any different from their denial regarding Carlson? I.e. “we have nothing in our databases related to you” versus “you’ve never been an intelligence target”? Or would it read the same cautious way since they might not be sure at a given moment what they do and don’t have, such is the incredible volume of data they’re collecting?

The problem for the NSA in arguing that Tucker’s stuff may have ended up in their net and no one in-house realized it is that, according to Carlson himself, a whistleblower recited information from his communications to him that only a person who had seen them could know. If that’s true then someone somewhere is reading his stuff. The NSA? A hacker? A source who was corresponding with him and then was hacked themselves or who copied his emails to a third party for some untoward reason?

He addressed this yesterday on the air with a bit of goalpost-shifting of his own. On Monday he claimed the NSA was monitoring his communications for a specific purpose, plotting “to leak them in an attempt to take this show off the air.” Last night he recharacterized the claim this way: “NSA has read my private emails without my permission, period.” The allegation about an illicit motive had been dropped.

Again, as dubious as it is that the NSA can sweep up Americans’ communications abroad when it targets foreigners whom they’re chatting with, there’s nothing novel about it. It’s been a fact of life for years under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. It could happen to you or me, and maybe has. What made Carlson’s initial accusation a bombshell is that he claimed the agency had a sinister non-intelligence motive in how it was handling his communications, hoping to ruin a political opponent by leaking them. If he’s no longer accusing them of that then the remaining mystery is who the whistleblower is and how that person came to know what was in his emails. Could he be an NSA employee who accessed the database to search for Carlson’s communications on his own initiative? Are Carlson’s communications being shared among agency personnel? Or is the whistleblower not an NSA employee at all?

As of this morning, there was still no evidence that Fox News’s news team was interested in helping him figure this out:

Journalist advocacy groups aren’t rushing to his defense either despite the fact that this would be an egregious abuse of state power against a broadcaster if it’s true:

In a testament to just how far the credibility of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has cratered, press freedom groups did not rush to put out statements of support for the host. Moments after Carlson floated his allegations, we asked Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, if his organization had anything to say. “No comment from us on this one,” he replied.

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of free-expression group Pen America, issued this statement after we asked for the organization’s reaction. “Any claim that the National Security Agency is spying on an American media figure is a matter of serious concern. In this instance, the allegations have been made verbally on television, without the presentation of proof. Tucker Carlson’s record for veracity, as assessed by credible fact-checking sources, is poor. We will await further details and substantiation before passing judgment on whether this grave accusation is credible.”

One question I have is why he’s so sure it’s the NSA rather than the DOJ that’s reading his stuff. Presumably he checked out the whistleblower’s credentials and is confident of an NSA connection but usually when reporters are spied on by the feds it’s the Justice Department doing it in the course of trying to sniff out a leaker inside the government. That’s another dubious, but legal, practice by Uncle Sam. Could that be what happened here?