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Tucker Carlson’s NSA spying claims are evidence-free. Republicans are running with them anyway.

Carlson’s story about the NSA reading his emails would be easier to take seriously if he wasn’t a serial fabulist.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Carlson speaks at a National Review event in March 2019.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Tucker Carlson has repeatedly made a bombshell allegation on his Fox News show this week: that the National Security Agency (NSA) is spying on him as part of a Biden administration plot to get his show canceled.

Longtime watchers of Carlson probably won’t be surprised to learn that the evidence for this claim is lacking, and on Tuesday the NSA took the unusual step of releasing a carefully worded statement denying it.

The NSA’s record on civil liberties is hardly spotless. But Carlson offered no evidence to support his more insidious claim that the agency planned to “leak [his communications] in an attempt to take this show off the air.” Still, the most fervent Trump supporters in the House Republican caucus seized on a fact-free narrative about the Biden administration abusing its powers.

During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) tried to give Carlson’s latest wild conspiracy theory a boost by suggesting the NSA’s statement denying it is actually evidence of its truth.

“Amazingly, the NSA has issued a statement that is so couched it is functionally an admission,” said Gaetz, who went as far as to call for an investigation of Carlson’s allegations.

Meanwhile, The Daily Caller — a popular right-wing media outlet founded by Carlson — created a fracas out of an anodyne statement by press secretary Jen Psaki, who had refused to engage at length with a question about Carlson’s claims during a press gaggle on Tuesday:

The situation escalated further on Wednesday, when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy released a statement calling on Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes — who distinguished himself during the Trump years by working with the White House in a desperate, failed effort to gin up evidence that then-President Barack Obama spied on the Trump campaign — to investigate Carlson’s claims.

“There is a public report that NSA read the emails of Fox News host Tucker Carlson,” McCarthy claimed, apparently referring to comments Carlson made on his show. “Although NSA publicly denied targeting Carlson, I have serious questions regarding this matter that must be answered ... the NSA cannot be used as a political instrument.”

Notably, McCarthy is calling for a congressional investigation of Carlson’s flimsy claims while simultaneously strenuously opposing any congressional investigation into the January 6 insurrection.

Carlson’s dubious claims percolating so quickly from Fox News to right-wing media to the mouths of members of Congress to Republican leadership embodies how the right-wing manufactures — and then amplifies — controversies that serve their political ends and stoke anger in supporters. It also illustrates a rhetorical device Carlson has mastered: making wild, far-fetched inferences based on nothing more than a shred of rumor, a single supposed unnamed source, and innuendo.

Carlson’s story makes for compelling TV, but he has yet to provide any evidence

Carlson on Monday claimed he learned of the alleged spying on his show thanks to “a whistleblower within the US 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.”

To back this up, Carlson said the whistleblower “repeated back to us information about a story that we are working on that could have only come directly from my texts and emails.”

“The Biden administration is spying on us. We have confirmed that,” he added.

Before we get to these claims themselves, it’s worth remembering Carlson’s track record. Suffice it to say, it would be easier to take stuff like this seriously if he didn’t have a long history of basically making stuff up.

Consider claims Carlson made late last October about being in possession of “documents that are directly relevant to the presidential campaign just six days from now” that would incriminate the Bidens — documents he first suggested were intentionally misplaced by the Postal Service as part of a conspiracy theory to protect Biden, but that he never ended up covering on his show even after they were found. Or accusations he made recently about the US’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, being involved in a criminal coverup of the origins of Covid-19 that he quietly dropped after an examination of the emails in question indicated Fauci was involved in no such thing. Just two weeks ago Carlson pushed a conspiracy theory about the January 6 insurrection that couldn’t withstand cursory investigation.

So there’s a pattern of Carlson saying headline-grabbing stuff, then just moving on to the next thing as people figure out he’s full of it. What’s more, in this case the news side of Fox News, which regularly covers comments Carlson makes on his show as if they’re news, has completely ignored his allegation that the government is spying on him — which likely says something about how much credibility it has.

Nonetheless, right as Carlson’s show started on Tuesday, the NSA itself saw fit to rebut the allegations in a tweet it posted “regarding recent allegations.” It says:

On June 28, 2021, Tucker Carlson alleged that the National Security Agency has been ‘monitoring our electronic communications and is planning to leak them in an attempt to take this show off the air.’ This allegation is untrue. 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.

NSA has a foreign intelligence mission. 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 US citizen without a court order that explicitly authorizes the targeting.

As alluded to earlier, the careful wording of the NSA’s statement prompted the Matt Gaetzs and Jim Jordans of the world to proclaim it actually confirms Carlson’s conspiracy theory. But in reality, given the nature of the foreign intelligence work the NSA does, the agency had to parse words.

It can’t be ruled out that the NSA collected data on Carlson when he was in touch with a foreign national who was under surveillance. In fact, as Philip Bump detailed for the Washington Post, there have been a couple of occasions already this year where it’s feasible such a thing may have happened.

Earlier this year, [Carlson] traveled to El Salvador to interview that country’s president. It’s almost certain that a foreign leader and his aides would be under surveillance. Or, perhaps, Carlson’s been in contact with individuals in other countries — like, say, Ukraine — as part of his reporting.

But that sort of incidental collection is lawful. Bump has a good walk-through of what’s in the realm of possibility — including potential illegal overreaches by the NSA — and what’s not.

It should be mentioned that the NSA doesn’t necessarily have the most sterling reputation for truth-telling either. James Clapper’s tenure as Obama’s director of national intelligence was marred by a statement he made during a 2013 congressional hearing that the NSA doesn’t willfully collect data on millions of Americans — one that was quickly refuted by the Edward Snowden revelations. So none of this is to say that the NSA’s word should be taken as gospel.

But Carlson isn’t just making a claim that the NSA is incidentally collecting too much of Americans’ data, or that it’s providing that data to the FBI in warrantless searches, or that individual agents are improperly spying on certain people — in other words, claims that could track with history. He’s claiming the NSA is spying on him to serve a partisan purpose.

Considering Carlson’s track record and his lack of evidence, it’s likely his NSA allegations are just the latest instance of him saying incendiary stuff for attention — and getting a boost from Republicans like Gaetz and Jordan who are similarly eager to portray the Biden administration as out to get Trump supporters.

Predictably, during his show on Thursday, Carlson echoed the line used by Jordan and Gaetz earlier in the day and falsely claimed the NSA’s statement “effectively conceded” the agency is reading his emails.

Meanwhile, Carlson allies such as Glenn Greenwald spun outlets like the Washington Post fact-checking Carlson’s NSA claims as evidence “the corporate media is taking the side of the highly secretive and pernicious US security state in a public controversy.” But until Carlson backs up the specific allegations he’s making, there’s no reason to believe this occasion is different from the many others when Carlson distorted the truth for the sake of good TV.

Even Fox News has acknowledged that Carlson shouldn’t be taken seriously

As is always the case when something Tucker Carlson says is in the news, it’s worth keeping in mind that even Carlson’s employer thinks he’s more or less full of it.

Consider a September 2020 opinion written by Trump-appointed US District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil dismissing a slander case brought by Karen McDougal, a woman who received a hush payment during the 2016 presidential campaign in exchange for keeping quiet about an alleged affair with Trump, who Carlson accused of engaging in “a classic case of extortion.”

The “‘general tenor’ of the show should then inform a viewer that [Carlson] is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary,’” Vyskocil wrote, referencing arguments made by Fox News lawyers. “Fox persuasively argues, that given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statement he makes.”

In response to a Vox request for comment, a spokesperson for Fox News pointed out a judge’s ruling in a defamation case involving MSNBC host Rachel Maddow similarly found that “a reasonable viewer would not conclude that the contested statement implies an assertion of objective fact” — their point being that Tucker isn’t necessarily unique among cable news hosts. But the network didn’t respond to a question about whether it stands by the allegations Carlson is making regarding the NSA reading his emails.

Maddow aside, the point is that lawyers representing Fox News in a court of law have acknowledged that Carlson’s show is full of “exaggeration” and “non-literal commentary.” That sort of thing may drive ratings, but in evaluating his claim that the Biden administration is abusing its power to get his show canceled, using “an appropriate amount of skepticism” suggests this episode is political theater instead of something Congress should spend time investigating.

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