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Rubio takes an interest in the right's NSA conspiracy theory

Tucker Carlson pushed a conspiracy theory about the NSA. Marco Rubio is taking it seriously, which probably isn't a good idea.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., walks to the Senate subway after a vote in the U.S. Capitol on May 26, 2021.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., walks to the Senate subway after a vote in the U.S. Capitol on May 26, 2021.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

It was in late June 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.

Weeks later, the GOP's willingness to take the matter seriously hasn't gone away.

The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee is calling on the director of national intelligence to investigate allegations that the federal government "unmasked" Fox News host Tucker Carlson. In a letter to Avril Haines, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said that recent media reports that "Mr. Carlson was unmasked by a government agency" have "only fueled the perception that unmasking is being used as a political hammer or to satisfy curiosity."

In his written request to the DNI, the Republican senator not only referenced the "perception" of political improprieties, Rubio also argued that the public is "attuned to the perception of widespread misconduct." His letter also referenced "public suspicion and distrust."

Or put another way, the Florida Republican -- the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee and the panel's former chairman -- isn't aware of any wrongdoing on the part of the intelligence community, but he is aware of "perceptions."

Of course, those perceptions may very well exist, though that doesn't make them true.

Let's circle back to our earlier coverage to review how we arrived at this point. NBC News reported last month that after Carlson raised the allegations, the NSA took the unusual step of issuing a written statement, explaining that the Fox News personality "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 was against this backdrop that Axios moved the ball forward with a related report, adding that 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."

Axios added that U.S. 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."

If Axios' sources were correct, it raised the possibility of a scenario in which 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.

All of this was reminiscent of Donald Trump's insistence that U.S. intelligence agencies "spied on" his 2016 campaign. When pressed for proof, Republicans have pointed 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.

So why is Marco Rubio taking an interest in this weeks later? It's possible that the senator, given his powerful position on the Intelligence Committee, has uncovered relevant information that sparked new interest in the story.

And it's also possible that the ambitious Republican is playing a partisan political game, so that he can tell his party's base and conservative media outlets that he played along with their suspicions, indifferent to whether those ideas are rooted in fact.