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Republicans settle on a new political foil: the NSA

Tucker Carlson is pushing a conspiracy theory about the NSA. Congressional Republicans are taking it seriously, which is probably unwise.
Image: NSA Administration building
An exterior of the National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md. on June 6, 2013.Patrick Semansky / AP file

Fox News' Tucker Carlson raised a few eyebrows this week by claiming, on the air, that the National Security Agency was "monitoring" his electronic communications, with plans to "leak them in an attempt to take this show off the air."

The host offered no proof, but Carlson assured viewers he learned of the scheme by way of an unnamed "whistleblower."

A day later, the NSA took the step of issuing a written statement, explaining, "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."

The statement added, "With limited exceptions (e.g. an emergency), NSA may not target a US citizen without a court order that explicitly authorizes the targeting."

This did not, however, resolve matters. The Fox News host continued to use his show to push the line, which was soon embraced by the likes of Alex Jones and others on the fringe. It wasn't long before far-right voices on Capitol Hill, including Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), joined in.

Late yesterday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) decided to take it seriously, too, calling for an investigation into the National Security Agency:

"[T]here is a public report that NSA read the emails of Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Although NSA publicly denied targeting Carlson, I have serious questions regarding this matter that must be answered. Given this disturbing trend, I've asked HPSCI Ranking Member Devin Nunes to investigate and find answers on behalf of the American people. The NSA cannot be used as a political instrument...."

Oh, where to begin.

First, there's literally nothing in the public record, at least not yet, to suggest the NSA spied on Tucker Carlson. Obviously, a degree of skepticism toward the spy agency is understandable, but in a test of credibility pitting the NSA against the far-right Fox News host, it's unwise to assume the latter deserves to prevail. After all, as NBC News reported yesterday, "The conservative host has a history of making false or exaggerated claims."

Second, it remains deeply problematic that the lines between the Republican Party's fringe and its mainstream continue to disappear. It's one thing for the lines of Gaetz and Jordan to jump into the fever swamp, but McCarthy, the would-be House Speaker, is supposed to be at least a little more responsible. He's not.

Third, Devin Nunes -- a curious choice to lead any examination given his controversial past -- can't use the House Intelligence Committee to launch some new probe, since the California Republican is in the minority. Evidently, McCarthy wants Nunes to oversee some kind of freelance operation, of which no good can come.

And finally, it was a bit jarring to see the House GOP leader express concern about federal agencies being used as "political instruments," given that McCarthy didn't have any such concerns between 2017 and 2020 when a certain former president saw practically every federal agency as an extension of his political operation.

Nevertheless, there's no reason to believe any of this will fade anytime soon. When you receive emails from your weird uncle who consumes conservative media all day, demanding to know why the Biden administration is spying on Tucker Carlson, at least you'll know why.