Asking the right questions about the monitoring of Tucker Carlson

Asking the right questions about the monitoring of Tucker Carlson
The "Old" (Eisenhower) Executive Office Building across from the White House in Washington, D.C.. (Image: Wikimedia)

Late note as this goes to post:  As Wednesday closes, Tucker Carlson has concluded his third segment on this topic.  He seems to be learning more by the day about it, which is positive.  We may be hopeful that some good will come out of this disclosure (whether that was the intent of the original leak is another question).  I also note that members of Congress clipped in Carlson’s segment (McCarthy and Gaetz) are on the right track, not limiting their concern to NSA.  (The two latest segments, from Tuesday and Wednesday, are below)

In the third segment in particular, on Wednesday, Carlson says his show interviewed NSA officials at some length, and got out of them an admission that they have been monitoring him, but had “reasons.”  Since Carlson didn’t quote the language used by NSA, I can’t judge whether they actually explicitly admitted “monitoring” him at NSA.

But that’s what this article is largely about.  It should help as background for understanding what readers hear as this issue moves forward.  I already outlined that someone could be monitoring Carlson for “reasons,” purportedly related to national security, so that’s no surprise.

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The important thing to establish is that NSA is never free to make up its own reasons for such a thing.  Read this article to understand that monitoring Americans is a priority set by higher authority in an administration.  That’s where voters need to focus their concern.  Don’t bore-sight on NSA.

And don’t assume that every disclosure about this kind of monitoring is made as a public service.  The disclosure made to David Ignatius in January 2017, about Michael Flynn and Sergei Kislyak, certainly wasn’t.

Fox News video, YouTube

Here is the original article.

It is likely (in fact more than likely, if a source can quote his emails to him) that an agency of the U.S. government has been systematically monitoring Tucker Carlson.

But the allegation that NSA is in charge of it is taking this legitimately concerning situation in the wrong direction.

Reading your texts and emails doesn’t have to be done by NSA, and probably isn’t, unless (a) you’re a foreign government entity, or (b) your scenario is that you’re the girlfriend of a worker-level NSA analyst who’s suspicious of you, and decides to break the applicable agency rules and U.S. statutes.

But your comms can also be read by NSA without NSA performing the “monitoring” critics are thinking of.

On Tuesday, NSA posted a statement denying that the agency had targeted Carlson for monitoring.

Numerous commentators, including Carlson, have focused on the obvious point that the NSA denial doesn’t mean Carlson wasn’t monitored.  Of course it doesn’t.  In his response to the NSA denial, Carlson was upset with the infuriating nature of it.

Here’s the Wednesday segment:

But “Carlson is in fact being monitored” doesn’t mean NSA is behind it, in the way suggested by the source disclosure to Carlson as reported.

The media are gleefully reporting that the spat is blowing up quickly.  This is gratifying to someone.  We need to identify who it is.

The important questions here are basically two, and they both lead us back where we need to be focusing.

1) Why did NSA issue a denial?

2) Why is Carlson being told it’s NSA that’s monitoring him?

I will defer the NSA denial question, except to make the initial point that NSA doesn’t confirm or deny these things, as a rule.  So it’s a legitimate question why a denial was issued.  Any kind of comment one way or the other sets up expectations about the meaning of future silence, so it’s very informative that NSA broke this rule.

We’ll get back to that. Meanwhile, the equally important question is why Carlson’s source is telling him it’s NSA that’s monitoring him.

Why is the story that “it’s NSA”?

A few general points to begin with.  One, we’ll tag the possibility that the source knows for sure it’s NSA.  That knowledge would have to come from someone who could directly observe evidence of NSA doing it.

But that’s not how this problem of “monitoring Americans’ comms for political warfare” has been metastasizing over the last decade.  That’s why I keep objecting on this point.  It’s not people at NSA who have responsible cognizance of misusing the system politically, by doing the monitoring and exploiting we’ve heard so much about.

To the contrary, NSA has been at the forefront of blowing the whistle on the improper monitoring and exploiting.  That’s what Admiral Mike Rogers did in 2016.  He didn’t make a big deal of this specific point in his public commentary, but his focus, which was on FISA Section 702 non-contents queries, turned up thousands of such actions at other agencies.

Even the redacted version of the FISA court’s response to his confessional report enables us to read that between the lines.  Rogers was clear that he caught some of his own people doing it, but those people he could discipline and curb in-house.  The purpose of filing a bombshell report with the court was to demonstrate what the other agencies were doing:  to get it on the record at a level those agencies couldn’t paper over.

ADM Michael Rogers testifies before a Senate committee in 2017. WaPo video, YouTube

Immediately after Rogers filed his October 2016 report, a heroic act in favor of integrity and good government, then-DNI James Clapper wanted to fire him.

Very recently, NSA promised to release the records of 16,000 cases of improper monitoring by the FBI, in response to a FOIA request the FBI has been stonewalling for years.  Something to ponder.

Number two, in our list of general points:  it’s possible Carlson’s source doesn’t know enough to understand that it doesn’t have to be NSA, performing the action of “monitoring” that’s at issue here.

If Carlson’s comms are being quoted to Carlson, that does mean someone is reading his comms. That someone doesn’t have to be NSA.  Even if it is, it may not be done on NSA’s authority, but at the direction of someone at the Justice, ODNI, or NSC level – in which case the ire is better directed at the higher-level agency.

The brain trust, briefing Congress in 2014. (Image: Defense Intelligence Agency)

That description is a more accurate and pertinent view of how Michael Flynn was being monitored than the simplistic “NSA did it” perspective.  NSA didn’t seize the reins and “monitor Flynn.”  We actually know from text messages, which corroborated media reporting, that the FBI was monitoring Flynn, and that the monitoring of the Trump transition team figured into at least one data call in the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB).

Yet quite a number of commentators this week have alluded to the Spygate monitoring, including the monitoring of Flynn, as a prior instance of “NSA monitoring.”  To the extent that comms properly processed by NSA may have been used to effectively (incidentally) monitor Flynn, we can deduce that it was orchestrated from the highest level, including that data call in the PDB in late December 2016 (and of course the orgy of unmasking at the NSC).  It doesn’t get higher than that.  “NSA” wasn’t the agency responsible for “monitoring Flynn”; NSA was responding to tasking from the Executive Office of the President.

The source may not understand that.  (I find this doubtful, but we’re tagging possibilities.)

A third general point:  whoever told Carlson about this committed a felony by doing so, assuming it’s at least true that Carlson is being monitored (regardless of who’s doing it).  The motive to commit a felony, when the FBI can probably track this source down inside 48 hours, ought to be of high analytical interest to us.

Which droid? They don’t function the way you think

So, to the “monitoring droids” and their functions.  In the last couple of days I’ve seen near-universal misunderstanding of how this works, among the best-intentioned commentators.  The bottom line up front is that NSA doesn’t play the role they think it does.

There are three layers of “tasking,” let’s call it, that result in someone’s comms being monitored.  Most people understand two of them; some recognize all three.  But the mystery here – the one that needs to be rolled back (in an unclassified manner, speaking only to what’s known publicly) – is that NSA is not the cognizant authority for any of them.

National Security Agency, Ft. George G. Meade, MD. Wikipedia: By National Security Agency –, Public Domain, Link

The point is not that NSA can’t go rogue, in the institutional sense that the FBI did in creating Crossfire Hurricane as a pretend investigation.  The point is that Tucker Carlson being monitored does not mean that NSA is calling the shots on that, or even participating in it, in a way for which NSA is in charge and making the decisions.

The layers are basically (1) amassing the data trove from the commercial telecoms so that it’s available (although it goes mostly unused); (2) prioritizing the use of it by categories of national security problems (corresponding to the “collection” stage of the conventional intelligence cycle); and (3) actually exploiting the data for specific situations.

The first layer is the one invariably referred to as bulk collection, or mass surveillance.  That’s an inaccurate understanding.  In the context of a data-pull environment, what it actually is is “data acquisition.”

The second layer is the least known by the general public.  It’s the one where national security letters come into play, along with other methods of stating national priorities and authorizing the use of the bulk-acquired data.

The third layer is where “Tucker Carlson” would come up as an exploitation tasker.  His comms could be exploited through the front door (i.e., via FISA authorization), for a statutory and prioritized purpose.  Or they could be exploited as we saw so often in Spygate (whether with rampant unmasking or FISA Section 702 queries), using national surveillance tools loosely and without accountability.

NSA is not ultimately in charge of setting the parameters for any of these layers or activities.  NSA makes expert input to the chain of command on most of them, especially in its assigned operational functions with foreign government comms, cyber operations, and the process of amassing the Big Database.

But it’s actually the president, Congress, and the cabinet-level departments (Defense, Justice, State, Homeland Security, Treasury, ODNI/CIA, etc) that decide how each of the three layers is to be bounded, organized, and executed.

Again, we had a glimpse of that in the Michael Flynn saga, with the references to a data call in the PDB on comms there might be involving the Trump transition team and the Russian ambassador.  The agencies and high officials involved in that transaction are chartered to make the decisions they made in that case.  The impropriety lay in using the surveillance apparatus for the purpose of spying on domestic political opponents.

YouTube screen grabs

It was not NSA that had the motive or made the decision.  That’s the point everyone needs to understand.  It applies to Tucker Carlson too.

That’s why it can legitimately be said that NSA is neither targeting nor monitoring Carlson, if the only cognizant function it performs is unmasking Carlson, or acknowledging the incidental processing of his comms, at the request of another agency.

Carlson may have asked the right question, but NSA couldn’t answer it

In his response to the NSA denial, Carlson said he asked NSA this: “Did the Biden administration read my emails?”

If that’s actually what Carlson asked, it’s the right question.  It’s not the same question as “Did the NSA read my emails?”

But it would be the right question.  A much better question than merely asking about NSA.

Here’s what Carlson reported [this was on Tuesday – J.E.]:  “NSA officials refuse to say.  In a very heated follow-up conversation 20 minutes ago, they refused even to explain why they won’t answer that simple question.”

NSA isn’t supposed to give that answer to Carlson – for another agency, or even for itself.

The NSA denial said only what it could say without making the statement itself a revelation of sources and methods.  [Whatever else NSA then said on Wednesday is interesting, therefore, and I wouldn’t make assumptions about why NSA said it – especially not without knowing exactly what the officials said.]

A detour through the cloud

Before resuming the discussion of why Carlson’s source named NSA as monitoring him, a brief stop in the IT cloud is in order.

An alternative possibility is that someone, presumably the FBI, has been examining Carlson’s files in whatever IT cloud he uses, as Rudy Giuliani said was done with his iCloud files in 2019.

Just a computer living and working in the cloud. Pixabay

Files in the cloud are not communications.  Keystroke logs and temporary files, stored as documents are being updated, are not communications.  Texts and emails that get stored on a cloud server are not communications in the same functional way such data files are when they undergo send-receive transactions via telecom processes.

But it’s quite possible the information Carlson’s source quoted to him, which seemed to come from Carlson’s own texts and emails, could have been abstracted from working files in his IT cloud.  Cloud data is obtained via subpoena to the cloud providers, such as Google, Microsoft, and others.

It’s not routinely amassed and stored in a government cyber-vault, as telecom data is.  NSA can’t issue a subpoena for it; at the federal level, DOJ has to do that, and NSA will never even see it.

Curiously enough, concerns about government monitoring and privacy in the cloud have just been raised anew in Congress this week.

Back to that initial question

So, why did NSA issue a denial, when that has never been the agency’s practice?

The question Cui bono? always rears its head in these cases.  Who benefits from what is now going on:  Carlson feuding with NSA on-air, NSA coming under fire and being targeted with public ire about monitoring (which in this case NSA may have had no hand in), Carlson potentially being discredited, if not with viewers, then at least with Fox News?

As we watch for consequences, we’ll begin to form a better idea why NSA issued the denial – as we will about why Carlson has been told “NSA,” specifically, was monitoring him.

The first consequence is this unseemly Carlson-NSA spat.  Half of the observers are calling Carlson a moron; the other half think NSA is lying through its teeth.  Who benefits from that?

Someone who wants to discredit Carlson, and – very possibly – spike the story he’s been working on, would benefit.

Remember also:  Carlson’s source committed a felony by disclosing the monitoring to him.  We’ll see if the source is pursued.  If there’s no retribution against the source, that suggests the source wasn’t afraid of committing the felony.

There could be multiple reasons for NSA jumping into the fiery furnace of denial and debate, but I suspect they don’t include reputational suicide for the agency.  I wouldn’t draw conclusions at this point about NSA’s motive – or about what pressures the agency is under, from any quarter.

It is positive to see that Republicans in Congress are on the right track.  Carlson is taking a lot of grief, but by staying with this doggedly, he may end up turning around a situation that wasn’t intended to work to his benefit.  Stay tuned.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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