Latest on monitoring Tucker Carlson: Enough to get everybody riled up

Latest on monitoring Tucker Carlson: Enough to get everybody riled up
Fox News video, YouTube

When last we checked in on Carlsongate, NSA had said Carlson wasn’t targeted for monitoring by NSA, whereas Carlson said he’d been told he was being monitored – by NSA – and a source conveyed particulars from his emails that could only have been obtained by someone viewing the email contents.

NSA, responding to a query from Congress, has now done an internal review and reports that the agency has not, in fact, targeted Carlson for monitoring, nor did it sweep up his communications in incidental collection.

Here’s what NSA says did happen:

Instead, the nation’s top electronic spy agency 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, such as helping them make sense of the intelligence documents they are reviewing.

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There is nothing non-credible about this report.  It does require some elucidation, if you want to be an intelligent consumer of the information rather than merely reacting to the basic story with justifiable annoyance.

Moreover, as Harmeet Dhillon pointed out to Mark Steyn, sitting in for Carlson on Friday night, the NSA report doesn’t fully answer the mail.  It outlines what NSA says happened, but it doesn’t account for how Carlson’s original source may have seen Carlson’s own communications, or why the source told Carlson so explicitly that it’s NSA that’s been monitoring him.

Carlson being mentioned by third parties in comms events he didn’t participate in would not result in Carlson’s email contents being exposed – at least not directly.  It’s possible Carlson was referred to, and the contents of his emails were discussed, in enough detail to sound like Carlson’s original words.  But a source who knew what he was talking about wouldn’t call that “Carlson being monitored by NSA” – unless he had some separate agenda in mind in approaching Carlson.

This isn’t what it sounds like

There are a couple of points to make on the quick here.  One is that this whole event is starting to sound to me like an attempt to put NSA in the hot seat.  It was always very unlikely that NSA – literally, NSA, per se, and not another agency – had a formal task to monitor Tucker Carlson.  I never bought that that was going on.

The reason is that that’s not NSA’s lane.  NSA is responsive to national security tasking from other agencies, as well as executing a set of standing tasks of its own, but those other agencies don’t as a rule task NSA to monitor U.S. persons, because they’re not supposed to.

NSA is also not the deeply, pervasively politically corrupted organization the FBI and CIA have shown themselves to be in the last five years.  As with the integrity moves made by Admiral Rogers in 2016, NSA is still likely to push back if unlawful tasking comes over the transom, or unlawful use of NSA data is detected.

NSA’s responses have been in character since Carlson first spoke publicly about this in late June, including the most recent one, which is credible and NSA-like.  It says as much as NSA can say, but doesn’t go beyond that.  NSA probably knows who was actually monitoring Carlson, if someone was, but isn’t going to reveal that.  (If pressed by Congress, NSA would punt upstairs: consult with its ISIC – immediate senior in the chain of command, the Department of Defense – and with ODNI, before outing another agency.)

Time will tell on this, but critics of this perspective don’t know any better than I do if NSA’s spots have undergone a fatal change in the last six months.  It’s unconvincing to merely be more cynical.

So I question who may have been monitoring Carlson, if there was monitoring of his emails that resulted in a source quoting them back to him.  I doubt it was NSA: doubt it enough to ponder other ways to account for why Carlson would be told this.  It sounds as if he was told, categorically, that NSA was monitoring him.  It’s categorically very unlikely NSA was monitoring him – so perhaps he was told that by some third party, one with an agenda to get Carlson talking about NSA monitoring him.

National Security Agency, Ft. George G. Meade, MD. Wikipedia: By National Security Agency – https://www.nsa.gov/resources/everyone/digital-media-center/image-galleries/places/, Public Domain, Link

We may have future opportunities to explore that further.  To me, the most obvious scenario would be that someone wants to generate credibility and trust problems in the public mind for NSA and Carlson.  Setting them up to say suspicious-sounding things about each other would do the trick.

That brings us to the second point, which is that “NSA is monitoring Carlson” doesn’t mean what most people think it means.  There is vast, vast misunderstanding on this matter.  We’re talking vast here.

NSA did NOT unmask Carlson

To unpack it a bit, let’s start with the incorrect statement flying around the infosphere on Friday that “NSA unmasked Tucker Carlson.”  No.  NSA doesn’t need to unmask Tucker Carlson.  NSA is the central repository of unminimized data on global communications; NSA is the agency that can already see who the “masked” U.S. persons are in comms events.  Other agencies ask to have identities unmasked, and NSA responds to their requests.

An “unmasking” request, if the term is being used correctly, comes from an agency that couldn’t initially see the U.S. person’s identifying information.  That agency is by definition not NSA.

So the claim that NSA unmasked Carlson, being made in virtually all the reporting on this, is inaccurate and confusing.  It’s why the Record report indicates NSA explained it this way, in passive voice: that Carlson’s “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, such as helping them make sense of the intelligence documents they are reviewing.”

The “relevant government officials” were not at NSA.

But here’s the second element of this point.  NSA cannot and will not tell the public who made the request.  Not NSA’s job.  If the intel community is going to come clean on that at some point, it will be ODNI fingering the requesting officials.

So you don’t know what you think you do, if you think “NSA unmasked Carlson.”  Some other agency had Carlson unmasked.  It was not NSA that “unmasked” him, in the sense of needing to unmask him because of having “an official reason, such as helping them make sense of the intelligence documents they are reviewing.”  (Note briefly the significant wording of this example: “intelligence documents they are reviewing.”  That’s a reference to what’s called “finished intelligence,” or reports published, typically by NSA, based on the original raw comms events.  It’s NSA’s customers – not NSA – that encounter the information in this way, as “documents.”  Nowadays “documents” are electronic files.)

NSA is probably telling the exact truth: that the agency was never monitoring Carlson, got nothing about him from incidental collection (which is incidental collection of his comms, for the purpose of that statement), and instead responded to an unmasking request or requests from other agencies that were about third parties’ comms contents in which Carlson was mentioned.

Carlson could have been monitored – by someone else

None of that means that no one was ever monitoring Carlson’s own emails or texts.  It does mean NSA wasn’t, which makes NSA’s statements to date true.  That doesn’t leave very many options.  The FBI would be the most likely agency for such monitoring.

And if it were the FBI, NSA wouldn’t necessarily know without auditing data transactions in the intelligence community network, nor would it tell the public if it did know.  That’s not NSA’s job.  It’s way outside NSA’s lane to blow the whistle, even to Congress, on what could be a lawful (if not necessarily ethical) surveillance exercise by the FBI.

Wochit News video, YouTube

NSA holds the data when it’s been acquired, but for communications intelligence, that’s not what “collection” or “monitoring” means anymore.  Data acquisition is a vast Hoovering operation now, operating largely on autopilot under renewable national security letters and other instruments.

Collection – selecting data to pay attention to – and monitoring, the process of keeping tabs on the updates of interest, follow acquisition, and occur according to priorities and tasks.  For foreign-target communications, NSA totes most of that load for the intel community.  The priorities and tasks are set at a level higher than NSA: the cabinet agencies (State, Defense, Justice, Treasury, Homeland Security, CIA, ODNI, etc.) and the National Security Council.

For U.S. persons, the designated monitor for counterintelligence is the FBI.  It’s not NSA.

Carlson’s texts and emails are available for acquisition because they’re stored digitally with the telecom and Internet service providers, and the U.S. government has access agreements with those companies, including but not limited to the agreements involving NSA.  All of this has been known for 15 years, and in spite of complaints from watchdogs and members of Congress has gone substantially unchanged.

Another possibility is law enforcement penetration of whatever IT cloud service Carlson uses – something Rudy Giuliani complained about in regard to his privileged communications with former President Trump.  A U.S. user’s emails and texts in the cloud could be seen without NSA’s participation at all, even in a passive role.

That explanation would fit with the report that Carlson’s comms were of interest because of plans being discussed to interview Vladimir Putin (see links at top).  If that’s considered a national security concern involving a U.S. person, it’s the FBI that looks into it, not NSA. (That point is true across the board, independent of how the comms observations are acquired.)

It’s even possible Carlson’s emails and texts have been monitored through intercept in the transmission process; i.e., from black boxes placed around Washington, D.C. that suck in data from cell phones.  (See here and here, for starters.)  Federal agencies, from the FBI and DEA to the IRS and U.S. Marshals, have been buying and apparently using such devices.  Little has been known about the practice since it began some 10-12 years ago.

I want to put readers on your guard about what you think you’re hearing.  It’s not as simple as “NSA unmasked Tucker Carlson.” In fact, NSA didn’t.  That’s not how it works.  NSA fielded unmasking requests from another agency – which is how it works – but that’s not because NSA had some interest in tracking Tucker Carlson.  The other agency would be the party with that interest – which is how it’s supposed to be.

Yet Carlson was told it was NSA monitoring him. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.  NSA doesn’t sound guilty; it sounds like an agency under pressure saying the maximum it can say.  It’s wisest to put the two-minute hate against NSA on hold for now.  Something else seems to be going on.

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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