The mystery of the NSA reading Tucker Carlson's emails may have been solved

AP Photo/Richard Drew

Well, partially solved. Axios has the scoop of the day, which I assume will be addressed by Carlson tonight on his show.

According to their sources, Tucker was in contact with “Kremlin intermediaries” in hopes of landing an interview with Vladimir Putin. Nothing strange about that, as American journalists have interviewed Putin before. But it also wouldn’t be strange for an American journalist’s communications to get caught in the NSA’s net in a case like that. If the “intermediaries” are foreign nationals then the NSA can surveil them lawfully. If the intermediaries are U.S. citizens but believed to be foreign agents, the NSA could still listen in on them with a FISA warrant. Either way, any communications from an American to them would end up in the agency’s database incidentally under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. That’s not illegal or even unusual.

Tucker’s initial claim about the NSA, remember, was that the agency was “monitoring our communications and is planning to leak them in an attempt to take this show off the air.” There’s nothing in the Axios report to suggest a sinister motive by the feds in handling his emails. On the other hand, the story does show that the NSA’s public statement about this was weasel-worded. Tucker has “never been an intelligence target of the Agency,” their spokesman said, dodging the more likely possibility that his emails had been collected incidentally and were being reviewed by someone in the chain of command. The whole reason Carlson got wind of this, apparently, was because a whistleblower was able to repeat back to him the contents of his emails during a phone conversation. How many people were looking at his texts and emails to the intermediaries?

And why did they need to know that it was Tucker, specifically, who was in touch with the intermediaries? This may be poised to shift from a story about the NSA collecting Carlson’s communications to a story about U.S. intelligence “unmasking” him needlessly:

In order to know that the texts and emails were Carlson’s, a U.S. government official would likely have to request his identity be unmasked, something that’s only permitted if the unmasking is necessary to understand the intelligence.

In [another] scenario, interceptions might not have involved Carlson’s communications. The U.S. government routinely monitors the communications of people in Putin’s orbit, who may have been discussing the details of Carlson’s request for an interview.

But under this scenario, too, Carlson’s identity would have been masked in reports as part of his protections as a U.S. citizen, and unmasking would only be permitted if a U.S. government official requested that his identity be unmasked in order to understand the intelligence. And it’s not clear why that would be necessary here.

Notably, Axios says it hasn’t actually confirmed that any of Tucker’s communications were intercepted by the NSA. The agency isn’t talking. The sources for the piece are people who are “familiar with the conversations” between Carlson and the Kremlin intermediaries. It may be that it was Tucker’s camp, not the government, that leaked these details. Axios does say, though, that the sources claimed “U.S. government officials learned about Carlson’s efforts to secure the Putin interview.” Could that information have possibly come from Tucker’s side rather than the feds’? Is it just an informed supposition from Team Tucker based on the identity of the whistleblower?

Relatedly, are we sure that the intermediaries didn’t leak their texts and emails with Tucker to someone and they somehow ended up in the hands of the so-called whistleblower that way? The big mystery here, obviously, is who the whistleblower is and how he might plausibly have accessed Carlson’s communications. Even if he really does work for the NSA, it’s conceivable that he identified Carlson somehow without ever formally unmasking him. If, say, he was listening in on the intermediaries’ calls and recognized Carlson’s voice while they were chatting about a Putin interview on Fox, he could have put two and two together.

Also, if in fact all the NSA has on Tucker is him trying to get an audience with Russia’s president, why would he have claimed originally that the agency was going to leak that to try to “take this show off the air”? Other Americans have interviewed Putin. Fox would have been excited to land a scoop like that. People would have made jokes about Tucker’s political sympathies (“First question, Mr. President: Do you think Bashar Assad is as misunderstood as I do?”) but there’s no scenario in which he would have been punished for it. So why the hyperbole? Or were there other things in his communications with the intermediaries that were more embarrassing?

I don’t know how we’re going to get to the bottom of this unless Carlson convinces the whistleblower to come forward. Watch his interview with Maria Bartiromo this morning in which he talks about the initial revelation, saying he was approached last week in Washington by someone he knows well who told him that the NSA has his emails, and who then proved he knew the contents by repeating them to Carlson. Then, Tucker says, he got a call yesterday from a journalist who also knew about the emails (Axios, I’m presuming, but maybe not). From that he seems to have extrapolated that the NSA must be leaking. But that all comes down to the credibility of his original source — and again, Axios claims that it hasn’t actually confirmed that any of Carlson’s communications were intercepted by the agency, which is hard to square with the allegation that the NSA itself is leaking to reporters. Stay tuned.