On consecutive nights this week, Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson has alleged that the National Security Agency — charged with monitoring communications abroad to keep the U.S. safe — is spying on him in hopes of getting his top-rated show canceled.
"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 to take this show off the air," Carlson said Monday night.
Ascribing political motivations to the Biden administration, Carlson said the whistleblower had information about a story he's working on that could only have been derived from his own texts and emails.
On Tuesday, the NSA denied spying on him or wanting his show canceled. That night, Carlson returned to the air, crackling with indignation. He followed up his incendiary charge of possible criminal acts by saying the agency had notably not denied it was reviewing his communications.
He did not, however, offer anything more concrete. And Fox News has notably not reported on Carlson's allegations within its news programs, according to a review of transcripts. Not on Fox News political anchor Bret Baier's show. Not on Fox anchor John Roberts' afternoon news program. Not even on the often conspiracy theory-friendly morning show, Fox & Friends.
Online, Fox News has published two brief posts — one without a byline — simply rounding up what Carlson said but offering no new reporting. And Fox News public relations executives have not responded to repeated requests for comment from NPR and other outlets asking whether the network stands behind Carlson's claims. They instead pointed to Carlson's own remarks.
Asked by NPR for greater verification or documentation, Carlson wrote, "My word. Why would I make something like that up? Doesn't help me. I've got enough drama."
"But it's true," he said. "They haven't denied it, including tonight. The NSA was reading my email. That's absolutely confirmed."
Carlson did not answer NPR's questions of whether he was in contact with people in Russia or Ukraine over the 2016 elections, the president's son Hunter Biden or any related matter.
The NSA is banned from targeting U.S. citizens for direct eavesdropping unless a secret federal court finds there is reason to believe they are terrorists or agents of a foreign power. Yet the agency often sweeps up the emails or other communications of Americans who are in touch with one of the agency's foreign targets. Because the agency operates on such a massive global scale, the communications that are "incidentally" collected can be extensive.
"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," the NSA said in a formal statement Tuesday. "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 U.S. citizen without a court order that explicitly authorizes the targeting."
The NSA's statement saying Carlson was not a "target" of its intercept operations does not conclusively mean the agency did not collect some of his emails or texts. If, hypothetically, Carlson was exchanging messages with someone in Russia or Ukraine as part of his show's coverage of the 2016 election or the Trump administration or Hunter Biden, and the person overseas was being monitored by the NSA, the agency might well have gathered his messages. The agency is supposed to conceal the names of any Americans whose communications are gathered that way.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, announced Wednesday he had asked Rep. Devin Nunes of California to investigate the NSA over Carlson's claims and other episodes. Nunes, a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee when Republicans controlled the chamber, has pushed conspiracy theories from former President Donald Trump and his allies over numerous matters, including the 2016 elections, Russia and Ukraine.
Carlson is right on one score at least: He has had more than enough drama. Carlson has come under attack for some of his claims surrounding COVID-19 and public health officials and his defense of Trump against critics. Yet Carlson has navigated a delicate dance on those, taking the pandemic more seriously, more quickly, than many of his opinion colleagues at Fox, and also acknowledging, at times, Trump's flaws.
More problematically, Carlson has embraced rhetoric that inspires white supremacists, even as a top writer for his show quit after his online posts were revealed to have been racist and bigoted. Carlson also defended those who laid siege to the U.S. Capitol in January as patriots wrongly singled out for denigration by overbearing law enforcement authorities and liberals.
And most recently, and seemingly paradoxically, Carlson has also argued that the FBI may have been behind the siege.
"His audience is in perpetual state of anger and outrage, where now the target has shifted from 'the radical left' and the [D]emocrats, to the security state," tweeted Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center and a scholar of online misinformation and hate groups.
"He's making stronger and stronger claims about a conspiracy to overthrow the government without requisite proof," Donovan wrote. "This propaganda feeds into ... his audience's collective desperation that NO ONE is going to bring about justice. To them, the govt is now occupied by illegitimate forces."
Carlson's assertions could prove true or contain grains of truth. But that's not necessary for him to keep broadcasting: Lawyers for Fox News prevailed in a slander suit against Carlson by arguing his words could not literally be believed. A federal judge embraced that reasoning.