WASHINGTON — Fox News' Tucker Carlson said this week that the National Security Agency is spying on him as part of a plan to knock his show "off the air."
The NSA promptly denied the allegations, saying it focuses exclusively on "foreign targets." Critics dismissed Carlson's claim as a cynical attempt to rile up his conservative viewers who have made him the most watched host on cable news.
But is there any way that Carlson's allegations are true, or partially accurate?
The National Security Agency's mission is focused on tracking threats from overseas, and is authorized to scoop up emails, texts, phone calls and other electronic data from virtually any foreign source, including heads of state, foreign government officials, foreign spies and terrorist organizations.
The National Security Act of 1947, which provided the legal basis for the creation of the NSA, contained a specific ban on intelligence operatives from operating domestically.
By law, the NSA is barred from directly eavesdropping on a U.S. citizen unless a federal court decides there is a basis to suspect the person is working with a foreign target. There is no indication that any court has authorized surveillance of Carlson.
However, the agency does end up collecting emails or phone recordings of Americans incidentally if those U.S. citizens are in contact with foreigners who are under surveillance.
Carlson is claiming that the NSA monitored his communications for political reasons, implying there was no legal basis for the alleged surveillance. There’s no independent proof of that assertion, which if true would be a major breach of the legal guardrails governing the agency.
If Carlson was in touch with a foreigner targeted by the NSA, it's possible his emails or phone calls could be swept up in that surveillance, experts said. It's also possible he could have been unaware or uncertain whether the person on the other end of the call was a foreign agent.
"There is absolutely the chance that an American citizen would be incidentally intercepted or collected because they happen to be in communication with a foreign target," said Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI assistant director for counter-intelligence.
If there was any truth to Carlson's allegations, it could be that "he was communicating with a foreign agent," said Figliuzzi, who is also an NBC News contributor.
Even so, intercepted communications that include a U.S. national are highly classified, accessible to a limited number of people and the identity of the American is concealed unless intelligence officials have a valid reason to know their identity, Figliuzzi said.
"The compartmentalization of a U.S. person's identity within the NSA is incredibly strict," he added.
A former FBI agent, James Harris, tweeted that it was unlikely the NSA was reading Carlson's emails or texts. But he said if that was the case, under the law there were only two possibilities: that the person the television pundit was emailing or texting was an agent of a foreign power or a federal court had determined Carlson himself was a foreign agent.
"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 National Security Agency said in its 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 wording of the NSA statement left open the possibility that Carlson's emails or texts had been collected incidentally in the monitoring of a foreigner.
Since Carlson made his on-air allegations, Fox News has not issued a statement and other shows on the network have not followed up with major coverage. Asked about the allegations, Fox News directed NBC News to a segment on Carlson's show that aired Tuesday but offered no other comment.
Carlson has previously devoted significant airtime to allegations that President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, have links to corruption in Ukraine. A public U.S. intelligence assessment concluded that Russian intelligence agencies sought to fuel that narrative during the 2020 election to discredit Biden and try to help re-elect then President Trump. The assessment said Russian agents passed material to "prominent U.S. persons and media conduits to launder their narratives to U.S. officials and audiences."
It's not clear if Carlson's coverage of that issue, or other topics, could have put him into contact with a foreigner targeted by the NSA. The prime-time host interviewed El Salvador's president earlier this year, and the NSA is known to monitor political leaders around the world.
The National Security Agency has come under frequent criticism over the past two decades for its secrecy and how it handles domestic electronic data. After intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of the agency's vast eavesdropping operations, the NSA faced accusations that it was encroaching on Americans' privacy and hiding the extent of its data collection.
During a 2013 congressional hearing, former national intelligence director James Clapper misled Congress about the NSA's controversial collection of domestic phone records and later issued an apology. The NSA was collecting data related to phone calls placed and received and the duration of phone calls, but not the contents of conversations, according to intelligence officials.
In 2008, the FBI said that it had improperly obtained phone records of reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post from the papers' Indonesia bureaus. The then-FBI director, Robert Mueller, apologized to the newspapers' chief editors over the incident. The FBI relies on the NSA for any collection of electronic communications abroad.
The government's handling of surveillance also came under sharp criticism in the case of Carter Page, the former Trump campaign aide who was the subject of a national security warrant but was never charged with a crime.
In January of last year, the Justice Department concluded that two of the four court orders allowing the FBI to conduct secret national security surveillance of Page were not valid because the government made "material misstatements" in obtaining them. That followed a scathing report by the Justice Department's inspector general, which found that the FBI's applications to spy on Page were rife with "factual misstatements and omissions."
This past January, a former FBI lawyer was sentenced to probation after pleading guilty to falsifying an email in a Page surveillance application. Notably, however, the judge said the warrant probably would have been approved anyway, without the misstatement. Page had previously been the target of Russian intelligence recruitment efforts, according to court records.
'That could happen to you'
Carlson came out with his NSA allegation about midway through his show on Monday, saying that a "whistleblower" in the federal government had informed him about NSA spying aimed at forcing his show off the air.
"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," Carlson said.
He said the person who reached out to him "repeated back to us information about a story that we are working on that could have only come directly from my texts and emails."
"There's no other possible source for that information," Carlson said.
He also alleged that the alleged monitoring was politically motivated, without providing evidence.
"The NSA captured that information without our knowledge and did it for political reasons," he then said. "The Biden administration is spying on us. We have confirmed that."
House minority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has called for an investigation into Carlson's allegations, and said he asked Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, to look into the matter.
On Tuesday's program, Carlson doubled down on his allegations, saying the White House had avoided a direct denial and accusing the Biden administration of seeking to "intimidate" him.
"If we let them continue to do it, it's the end of democracy. Democracy can't function with semi-independent, highly politicized intel agencies. It's really dangerous," Carlson said.
The television host alleged that the NSA "routinely" spies on Americans and that it was sometimes for "political reasons."
He then suggested his viewers had reason to fear that they could be next.
"Some faceless hack in a powerful government spy agency decides he doesn't like what you think so he's going to hurt you and there's nothing you can do about it. That could happen to you," Carlson said.
"The message was clear: We can do whatever we want," Carlson said. He called his experience "Orwellian" and similar to "living in China."
Carlson then tied his allegations to a frequent theme on his program, claiming that the Biden administration is a threat to Americans' freedom and is unfairly labeling many "patriotic Americans" as domestic terrorists and white supremacist saboteurs.
PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of expression, said that the allegation that the NSA was spying on an American media figure was "a matter of concern," but questioned whether claims from Tucker Carlson could be considered credible given his track record.
"In this instance, though, the allegations were made without proof, and have now been denied by the NSA. Tucker Carlson's record for veracity, as assessed by credible fact-checking sources, is poor," said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel.
"Absent further details and substantiation there is no basis to judge this accusation as credible."
In a defamation suit filed by former Playboy model Karen McDougal against Fox News over statements made by Carlson, lawyers for Fox argued that the TV host was not stating facts on air but engaged in hyperbole for rhetorical effect. The judge agreed, ruling last year that Carlson's statements could not be considered as "factual representations."
The Anti-Defamation League has demanded Fox News sack Carlson, saying he defended a white supremacist theory that claims whites are being "replaced" by people of color.
Carlson's "rhetoric was not just a dog whistle to racists — it was a bullhorn," the head of the ADL, Jonathan Greenblatt, said in an April letter to Fox News.
Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch rejected the ADL’s criticism and defended Carlson, saying the television host “decried and rejected replacement theory” and was merely focusing on a matter of voting rights.