Fox News host Tucker Carlson's bombshell allegation that the National Security Agency is illegally spying on him as part of a plot by the federal government to destroy his show has withered away since he first offered it in late June. But rather than acknowledge that he was wrong, Carlson is still lying to his audience and now pretending that he’s been vindicated.
“A media outlet called The Record, which is owned by a cybersecurity company, recently published a story about the NSA’s monitoring of this show, effectively admitting that it happened,” Carlson said on Wednesday’s broadcast. “Our identity, The Record said, was included in an intel intercept and then, quote, ‘unmasked.’”
Carlson added, “Intercepted -- The Record rather did not explain how that would be legal, but it happened as we said it did.”
It did not happen as Carlson said it did, according to The Record story he is now citing as accurate. Carlson is lying.
Carlson’s initial June 28 claim was unequivocal: “Yesterday, 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 in an attempt to take this show off the air.”
“The NSA captured that information without our knowledge and did it for political reasons,” he added. “The Biden administration is spying on us. We have confirmed that.”
None of that has held up -- it appears that the NSA was never “monitoring” Carlson at all. Carlson is apparently counting on his viewers not to actually read The Record’s July 23 article, which is headlined “NSA review finds that Tucker Carlson’s communications were not targeted” and reports in its first sentence that “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.”
Carlson’s communications “were not targeted” by the NSA, nor were they “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 The Record story Carlson cited as evidence of his vindication.
Instead, an NSA internal examination found that Carlson “was mentioned in communications between third parties and his name was subsequently revealed through ‘unmasking,’” The Record reported. “Unmasking” is a scandalous buzzword on Fox, but the process it describes is simple: In intelligence reports derived from the legal surveillance of foreign targets, analysts routinely anonymize (“mask”) the identities of U.S. persons to protect their privacy. Senior U.S. officials following designated procedures can then request to reveal (“unmask”) those identities in order to better understand the reports. This is a common procedure: The NSA revealed the identities of 16,721 U.S. persons in 2018 and 10,012 in 2019, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The Record did not explain the context in which Carlson was mentioned by third parties and then unmasked. But it pointed to a July 7 Axios report that the Fox host was talking with “U.S.-based Kremlin intermediaries about setting up an interview with Vladimir Putin” when he first alleged the NSA was spying on him, suggesting that the agency may have picked up communications between those middlemen.
It’s still possible that Carlson was improperly unmasked, although there is no evidence of that at this time. But even if that is the case, what is described in The Record is nowhere near as damning as what Carlson first described as the NSA illegally monitoring him because the Biden administration wanted to destroy his show.
Carlson is nonetheless still presenting himself as the target of political persecution, asking on Wednesday night, “Why in the world would the U.S. government be unmasking journalists, particularly ones who are critical of them?” But that makes no sense -- the whole point of the unmasking is that the people seeking it don’t know the identity of the person getting unmasked.
The NSA’s dubious record certainly made Carlson’s initial claim seem within the realm of possibility, and it was worth being skeptical about the agency’s unusual denial. But it also made sense to be cautious about Carlson’s accusation because he is a notorious liar who has repeatedly claimed to be the victim of political persecution only for his allegations to fall apart, as I noted at the time.
Some people were willing to take Carlson at his word, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who called for an investigation. They walked out on the branch with him, and now it appears that the branch has been sawn off from underneath them.
Notably, the list of those who fell for Carlson’s latest lie largely does not include his colleagues at Fox, who seemed to recognize that the face of their network is a dishonest bullshitter and largely stayed away from the story.
None of this will lead to repercussions for Carlson himself. While an unnamed Fox spokesperson issued a statement to The Record condemning Carlson’s unmasking as “entirely unacceptable,” that does not address the massive disparities between that report and the host’s June 28 allegation. As a senior Fox employee told CNN regarding a different network embarrassment in 2017, “No one ever gets fired from Fox for publishing a story that isn't true.”