The independent watchdog agency which investigates potential wrongdoing by the National Security Agency (NSA) announced on Tuesday morning that it has opened an investigation into “recent allegations that the NSA improperly targeted the communications of a member of the U.S. news media.” Though the oversight unit, the NSA’s Office of the Inspector General, did not specify the journalist in question, the statement leaves no doubt that the investigation pertains to news reports that the identity of Fox News host Tucker Carlson had been improperly “unmasked” and illegally revealed within the intelligence community.
The full statement from the Inspector General reads:
SUBJECT: Review Related to Alleged NSA Targeting of a Member of the U.S. Media
The National Security Agency Office of the Inspector General (OIG) announced that it is conducting a review related to recent allegations that the NSA improperly targeted the communications of a member of the U.S. news media. The OIG is examining NSA’s compliance with applicable legal authorities and Agency policies and procedures regarding collection, analysis, reporting, and dissemination activities, including unmasking procedures, and whether any such actions were based upon improper considerations. If circumstances warrant, the OIG will consider other issues that may arise during the review.
The NSA’s Inspector General, Robert P. Storch, is a long-time Executive Branch functionary. He was first appointed to this position by President Obama in 2016 but failed to receive Senate confirmation. He was then re-appointed by President Trump in 2018 and the Senate then confirmed him. A widely respected bureaucrat in Washington, he also previously served as deputy Inspector General in Obama’s Justice Department, and, prior to that, was a federal prosecutor. It is, to put it mildly, difficult to imagine him opening an investigation into frivolous allegations.
The scandal began when Carlson announced on his show in late June that he had heard from a source inside the government that the NSA was in possession of his communications, as proven by their knowledge of what he was doing. The NSA then issued a meaningless non-denial denial, insisting that the Fox host “has never been an intelligence target of the Agency.” Even Fox’s critics acknowledge the irrelevance of that claim: there are many ways for the NSA to spy on an American citizen without having them be a formal “target” of the agency. In a follow-up interview on Fox, Carlson said he was told by a second source that the NSA had discovered his attempts to interview Russian President Vladimir Putin and viewed leaking of that information as potentially damaging to his reputation.
Corporate media outlets largely sided with the NSA, mocking Carlson for being conspiratorial and even accusing him of fabricating a story. One might think that journalists would have more interest in finding out whether the NSA was abusing their powers to discredit a journalist than cheering the security state for partisan reasons, but one would be wrong. Disdain for Carlson’s claims were widespread in media circles.
But Carlson’s concerns appeared to be at least partially corroborated when Axios’ Jonathan Swan reported that “U.S. government officials learned about Carlson's efforts to secure the Putin interview.” Though Swan emphasized that none of this meant that the NSA was targeting Carlson for surveillance or even that his communications had been “incidentally” collected — meaning that the NSA read his emails or heard his conversations because he was communicating with one of their targets — their knowledge of Carlson’s activities raised the question of whether Carlson’s identity had been “unmasked” by the agency. As Swan wrote:
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.
When the NSA learns about the communications or activities of an American citizen without having a warrant from the FISA court to spy on that person, they are required by law to engage in “minimization” efforts to protect the privacy of that citizen. In particular, when preparing reports involving such spying, they are required to conceal — to “mask” — the identity of the American about whom they learned information, referring to them only by a generic title sufficient to describe their work or status without revealing their specific identity (e.g., “an American journalist” or “a business executive”).
But in late July, the story appeared to take a sinister turn when a news outlet called The Record, run by a private security firm, revealed that two separate NSA sources admitted that Carlson’s identity had indeed been unmasked. Specifically, the site reported, while these sources insisted that Carlson had never been targeted for spying, and that his communications had not been incidentally intercepted, the NSA “found that Carlson was mentioned in communications between third parties and his name was subsequently revealed through ‘unmasking,’ a process in which relevant government officials can request the identities of American citizens in intelligence reports to be divulged provided there is an official reason.” The site did not specify which government officials requested the unmasking or what justification they cited.
It is extremely difficult to imagine any legitimate reason the NSA or any other intelligence agency would have for seeking to “unmask” the identity of a journalist who was merely seeking to interview the leader of a foreign country. There is, manifestly, nothing suspicious or even uncommon about seeking such an interview; indeed, doing so is fundamental to the work of any journalist.
That the NSA attempted to discover which journalist was talking to Kremlin-linked sources in order to arrange this interview bolstered Carlson’s original suspicion that the NSA was seeking to leak damaging information about him. While it is true that interviewing foreign leaders should be regarded as benign for any journalist, it is clearly the case that in the political climate cultivated over the last five years in the U.S. — especially for conservative public figures — any communications with Russians or Kremlin-linked figures has been treated as nefarious and evidence of likely wrongdoing.
It is this unmasking which is what appears to have prompted the IG’s decision to investigate the NSA’s activities regarding Carlson. Indeed, the IG’s statement explicitly describes the scope of the investigation as “examining NSA’s compliance with applicable legal authorities and Agency policies and procedures regarding collection, analysis, reporting, and dissemination activities, including unmasking procedures” (emphasis added).
The standards governing unmasking are somewhat vague: yet another reason the NSA’s powers to spy domestically are so excessive. But some legitimate reason must be supplied to negate the suspicion that the agency knew it was likely Carlson seeking this interview and purposely unmasked his identity with the intent to weaponize the intelligence against him, knowing that any communications between a Fox News host and Russians could and would be used by liberal politicians and their media allies to imply a nefarious motive.