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The right's NSA conspiracy theory comes into sharper focus

New reporting on the NSA, Russia, and Tucker Carlson is bringing an odd story into sharper focus.
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A sign stands outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus on Thursday, June 6, 2013, in Fort Meade, Md.Patrick Semansky / AP file

It was just last week when Fox News' Tucker Carlson claimed on the air that the National Security Agency was "monitoring" his electronic communications, as part of a scheme to take his show "off the air." The host offered no proof, but several congressional Republicans rallied behind him -- with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) even asking Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calf.) to launch some kind of probe into the odd allegations.

As NBC News reported, the NSA took the unusual step of issuing a written statement, explaining that 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."

NBC News' report added, "The conservative host has a history of making false or exaggerated claims."

It's against this backdrop that Axios moved the ball forward with this overnight report:

Tucker Carlson was talking to U.S.-based Kremlin intermediaries about setting up an interview with Vladimir Putin shortly before the Fox News host accused the National Security Agency of spying on him, sources familiar with the conversations tell Axios.... Those sources said U.S. government officials learned about Carlson's efforts to secure the Putin interview. Carlson learned that the government was aware of his outreach — and that's the basis of his extraordinary accusation....

It's important to emphasize that none of this has been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News. What's more, Axios' report added that the outlet has not confirmed whether any communications from Carlson were actually intercepted.

That said, if Axios' sources are correct, a plausible picture would come into focus: the Fox News host may have been in communication with a Kremlin official who was under surveillance. Under such a scenario, the NSA wasn't monitoring Carlson's communications; it was monitoring the communications of the person Carlson was talking to.

If you connected with a member of Vladimir Putin's team, the NSA would probably be aware of that, too. It would not, however, be proof of an NSA plot to derail your professional career.

It also wouldn't warrant a congressional investigation or weird partisan conspiracy theories.

A Washington Post analysis added this morning, "Almost immediately, [last night's Axios report] was used to argue that Carlson had been proved right, as though the salient question was simply whether Carlson might have had communications collected by the NSA and not that he had alleged a government plot to submarine his television show. It was the villagers rising to the defense of the boy who cried wolf by pointing out that, in fact, wolves do exist. Fine, but that's not really the point."

What's also striking is the familiarity of the circumstances. Donald Trump and his team have spent years insisting that U.S. intelligence agencies "spied on" his 2016 campaign, and when pressed for proof, Republicans point to instances in which members of Team Trump were in communication with their Russian allies.

But again, this wasn't because anyone was spying on the Trump campaign, it was because U.S. intelligence agencies were spying on Russians -- whom Team Trump was chatting with before taking office four years ago.

If the reporting is correct, and something similar happened to Carlson, it wouldn't be shocking in the slightest.

Perhaps the better question is who reached out to the Fox News host in the first place and why?

Update: A Fox News spokesperson told Axios, in response to its reporting, "We support any of our hosts pursuing interviews and stories free of government interference." Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, gave this statement: "As I've said repeatedly, because it's true, the NSA read my emails, and then leaked their contents. That's an outrage, as well as illegal."