Tucker Carlson vs. the NSA

People pass by a promo of Fox News host Tucker Carlson on the News Corporation building in New York, March 13, 2019. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

On the menu today: Tucker Carlson makes a huge accusation against the U.S. National Security Agency, but offers no proof; New York City royally botches its mayoral election vote-counting; and some deep thoughts on how we choose and shape our identities.

Tucker Carlson’s Gigantic Unproven Accusation against the NSA

Color me exceptionally skeptical of Tucker Carlson’s claim that the U.S. National Security is spying on his texts and emails and plans “to leak them in an attempt to take this show off the air” — with a caveat.

Extraordinary accusations require extraordinary proof — and so far, Carlson has only described what he has been told by an unnamed source, whom he characterized as a whistleblower. Carlson said, “The whistleblower, who is in a position to know, 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, period.” Carlson has not named his source, named with whom he exchanged those messages, or what was discussed in them. Carlson has shown no internal NSA documents or paperwork backing up his allegations. At this point, he just expects the world to take his word for it.

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And yet, Carlson insists his claim is confirmed. “The NSA captured that information without our knowledge and did it for political reasons. The Biden administration is spying on us. We have confirmed that.” What’s more, Carlson contends he and his staff managed to confirm the whistleblower’s allegation — and ruled out all other possible scenarios, including the possibility that someone is pulling his leg — within just one day. “Yesterday, we heard from 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.”

The NSA issued a statement Tuesday:

“On June 28, 2021, Tucker Carlson alleged 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.”

Last night, Carlson called the NSA’s statement “infuriatingly dishonest” and contended that it does not answer the question of whether the agency read his emails. (Notice the goalpost shifting: Carlson’s accusation was not merely, “The NSA is reading my emails.” It was that the agency was doing so as part of a plot “to leak them in an attempt to take this show off the air.”)

Fox News has offered no comment, according to Erik Wemple. There’s been almost no mention of Carlson’s claims on other Fox News programs, and this morning, there’s just a short, one-line headline midway down the page on the Fox News webpage.

My colleague David Harsanyi says he can’t rule it out, based upon past abuses of surveillance authority:

Sounds rather fantastical. We’ve seen no evidence or corroboration of the accusation. My initial instinct should be to dismiss conspiratorial claims about domestic espionage. As it happens, though, I’ve been alive for the past two decades. And history tells us it is wholly conceivable that intelligence and law-enforcement agencies would spy on a television personality. They spy all the time. They do it illegally. They do it for partisan reasons. They do it to lawmakers. They do it to journalists.

We live in a world where Russian hackers are shutting down U.S. companies and demanding ransom, China’s military intimidation of Taiwan is getting worse, the Iranian Navy is now operating in the Atlantic Ocean and headed for Venezuela, and COVID-19 has set off some sort of unspecified “grave crisis” in North Korea. Amidst this backdrop of real problems, the notion that NSA director general Paul Nakasone is taking time out of his day to sit around a conference table with his top officers and gravely order, “Launch Operation Unraveling Bowtie!” is implausible.

Here’s the caveat: In the past, we have seen some exceptionally unprofessional and unethical actions by NSA employees with access to that kind of powerful surveillance tools, in violation of U.S. laws, FISA requirements, and the NSA’s policies.

Reuters reported in 2013 that: “At least a dozen U.S. National Security Agency employees have been caught using secret government surveillance tools to spy on the emails or phone calls of their current or former spouses and lovers in the past decade, according to the intelligence agency’s internal watchdog.”

While the precise number of NSA employees is classified, it is estimated to be around 30,000 workers. Not all of those staffers have access to the sensitive private communications of U.S. citizens — but plenty do.

Do I believe the U.S. National Security Agency would make a coordinated effort to destroy a cable-news television show whose audience amounts to less than one percent of the U.S. population? No. Do I believe that at least one NSA employee, having lost their mind to political passions like so many other Americans in recent years, could abuse their access to communications surveillance and monitor Carlson’s messages? That sounds a lot more plausible. In fact, it sounds about as plausible as someone at the Internal Revenue Service illegally leaking the tax returns of dozens of America’s wealthiest people, because he thinks their legal use of tax shelters is morally objectionable.

New York City, Living Down to Its Reputation

No one in New York City is allowed to criticize how other parts of the country run their elections:

The New York City mayor’s race plunged into chaos on Tuesday night when the city Board of Elections released a new tally of votes in the Democratic mayoral primary, and then removed the tabulations from its website after citing a ‘discrepancy.’ . . . Just a few hours after releasing the preliminary results, the elections board issued a cryptic tweet revealing a ‘discrepancy’ in the report, saying that it was working with its ‘technical staff to identify where the discrepancy occurred.’

As I noted yesterday, this is for a mayoral primary election that was held more than a week ago. These guys make Palm Beach County look speedy.

Separately, the ranked-choice voting system works well in a situation where a voter has strong opinions about every candidate and is comfortable classifying them in a clear order of preference. If I offer you a choice of NFL quarterbacks that include Tom Brady, Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, Bryce Petty, and Kellen Clemens, you’re going to easily rank Brady first, and you probably won’t have particularly strong feelings about who gets ranked second through fifth.

But in a ranked-choice system, the ultimate winner may well be determined by how voters choose between their second-tier, third-tier, and below options such as Bryce Petty and Kellen Clemens. (And in the imaginary quarterback election scenario I described above, it’s conceivable that there would be enough Brady haters that a consensus favorite second pick, such as Mark Sanchez*, could end up winning the election.)

In the old first-past-the-post system, voters just have to find one candidate they like best or dislike the least. In this system, New York City voters really have to think through their order of preference among 13 candidates, and who is ranked third on how many ballots and who is ranked fourth can have real consequences. This process demands voters be much more familiar with the candidates, including the lesser-known ones.

As our Dominic Pino summarizes, “in a time when trust in election integrity is already low, we don’t need a system that’s hard to report and hard to comprehend.”

*Yes, yes, make butt-fumble jokes, but somehow Mark Sanchez ranks among the NFL quarterbacks with the most road wins in the playoffs in his career, alongside Russell Wilson, John Elway, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, and Len Dawson.

ADDENDUM: A thoughtful passage from Michael Brendan Dougherty:

We are told that we can “be whatever we want to be” and we are told to make our own identities, hopefully advantageous ones. And yet, because there is this freedom to reject and ignore, the project of self-creation ends with subjects who know themselves subjectively. Invited to create meaning for ourselves, we find that nobody is obliged to recognize what we see in ourselves. Nor do we live up to our own self-image, at least not in a satisfying way.

Our culture tells us, simultaneously, that we should be true to ourselves and not care about what other people think of us — and that “micro-aggressions” and any kind of disrespectful interaction represents a form of trauma. You can be whatever you want to be, but there is no guarantee that anyone else around you will like it. And if being whatever you want to be matters that much to you . . . you should be willing to live with other people not liking it.

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