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 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”).