Whistleblower to Tucker: You're Being Monitored; Reaction proves Snowden's lessons largely forgotten
Opponents amused; supporters outraged. Either way, it's as if 2013 never happened.
Recently Tucker Carlson made a pretty interesting claim. According to this claim, he was contacted by a whistleblower who could recite his emails, quote text messages and disclose data that seemed to have only been possible to obtain through hacking. Tucker was then warned that this data would soon be leaked to the public.
Shortly after, he decided to do a segment on Fox News where he accused the NSA of monitoring, surveilling and weaponizing his data. He also added some political flavor that seems to pander to his core audience: he connected everything to the Biden administration and added that “Spying on opposition journalists is incompatible with democracy.”
While Tucker’s claims made it into the mainstream news cycle, they were quickly put through standard partisan optics that allow anyone watching to promptly make up their mind on where they stand without really absorbing the underlying issue. One side approached this as an attack on American liberties often bundled with a not-so-subtle innuendo that the Biden administration is abusing their powers. The other side explained this as an attempt to erode public trust in national institutions, suggesting that Tucker might have something to hide or ridiculing him by comparing him to Alex Jones.
Both optics don’t really touch the main issue, that is the NSA and its mandate to conduct operations outside of any democratic process or oversight. Snowden’s leaks, even though explosive at the time, have now faded into memory and it feels as if we’re truly back to a pre-Snowden era where any notion of data monitoring invites media ridicule and where Fox News viewers act in shock as if Tucker’s the first journalist ever to have his data collected.
So, let’s start by bringing those old memories back to the forefront and make certain things clear. What Snowden revealed is mass surveillance purported by NSA. In 2013 Guardian reported that NSA requires Verizon on an ongoing, daily basis to provide them information on all domestic and international telephone calls in its systems. It doesn’t matter if the individual was suspected of any wrongdoing or not, if it was Tucker Carlson or regular John Smith - information was collected indiscriminately in bulk and then classed as metadata rather than communication to avoid legal implications like warrants and such.
The second big revelation that came out of Snowden leaks was that NSA engages in a total worldwide data gathering under a project known as PRISM which seeks to incorporate every major service provider into its surveillance network. Combining Prism with Upstream collection (raw intercept of all data passing through underwater fibre cables) gave NSA ubiquitous spying powers to monitor nearly entire Internet communication all around the world (except for perhaps China and few others). Again both ordinary John Smith and Tucker Carlson do fall well under “all internet communication.”
One of Prism onboarding slides (source: The Guardian)
According to Snowden what makes Prism so scary so that its evaluation is based on growth and engineered towards it. According to internal slides what NSA sees as success is first and foremost an increase in the number of signals and amount of data collected (not the quality of data i.e., the number oumber of criminals stopped of anything of that kind). The project is a success if each year the number of signals is higher than the year before, if there are new methods to gather fresh signals, if previous chokepoints and obstacles were removed and so on. Snowden correctly assessed that this is a very perilous optic. The hypothetical end game for such a vast, constantly expanding project would not eradicate all threats but eradicate all privacy with an ever-growing bureaucratic drive to collect increasingly more significant and finer amounts of data.
Given all of that, the current discussion and arguments around Tucker Carlson seem so far off the mark it’s almost laughable. How dare they monitor Tucker - says one side, Tucker is a conspiracist, nobody is monitoring him - says the other. Both sides fail to realize what they are debating is old news, old and irrelevant. Considering Snowden leaks were often quoted and referred to by the media it’s quite disheartening to see this regressive shift with anchors and news hosts now going back to pre-Snowden tropes. Same with public awareness which seems much lower than in the years past together with comments on social media that appear way more ignorant than even just a few years ago.
At the very least the debate should center around whether Tucker's communications were indeed leaked or not, whether his identity was inferred or unmasked, what was the protocol and had it been breached. Instead, all we’re hearing is a lot of noise.
It’s true that Tucker is generally quite despised by a lot of media folks and that his often-divisive segments created plenty of negative sentiment that might make it harder for casual observers to look past personal biases but generally the odds are overwhelmingly in favour of this story being true. NSA has a history of transgressions and violations so big and long that’s it’s would be simply impossible for this short article to list it all. And it’s not some old pre-Snowden disclosures that we’re talking about but fresh and relevant news of today.
Just in the last few years, we had AP journalists being spied on for revealing that a supposed-would-be-bomber in Yemen was actually a planted US agent, congress lawmakers being spied on for opposing the Iranian nuclear deal (data collected “incidentally” of course since NSA is a foreign focused operation and would never). There have also been instances of spying on officials, unmasking their identity and then somehow leaking the contents to the media , precisely what Tucker Carlson is suspicious about.
The list is long, spying on journalists, spying on congress members but the most egregious and dangerous contravention has to be the one where intelligence got caught spying on the very members of the Senate Intelligence Committee! Why this transgression is particularly concerning seems obvious. If those who are supposed to preside and be charged with overseeing intelligence power centres are considered targets by those very power centres then it undermines whatever democratic pretence these agencies might still have had. Instead of accountability, separation of power, checks and balances we see a construct that’s closer to what sociologist Luhmann described as an autopoietic social system, that is, a self-referencing system that can function on the basis of its own elements.
In the past, we saw such systems evolve and it was never for the good of the whole. One good example would be Spanish Inquisition, which grew so large it quickly became more powerful than the Church from which it was born. Only in the case of Inquisition, anyone trying to curb its power was investigated for witchcraft (after all why would anyone not want Inquisition to eradicate evil, surely they must be in cahoots themselves) and in the case of NSA, it’s national security. However, the premise stays the same, why would anyone want to curb NSA powers and allow the risk of foreign threats, surely they are a national risk too, maybe in cahoots, and need to be investigated.
Even though the Senate Intelligence Committee uncovered unlawful behaviour, they weren't able to hold anyone accountable. CIA Director John Brennan reportedly enraged Senate Intelligence Committee when he refused to answer who at CIA authorized the operation, but unsurprisingly, he wasn't punished for his refusal. John Brennan also committed aperjury, lied under oath and few weeks prior vehemently denied any involvement, going as far as declaring allegations to be so absurd that they are simply "beyond the scope of reason". None of this landed him in any type of trouble. Intelligence Agencies know that their spot is very high up the food chain and so allow themselves to operate with total disregard for the rule of law.
If there were no consequences for spying on Intelligence Committee why would anyone worry about Tucker? Well for one, Tucker is a public persona with his own prime-time news show and 5 million followers on Twitter. Even though there’s absolutely nothing in Tuckers revelations that NSA hasn’t done or breached in the past it immediately captured more media attention than any of the transgressions I mentioned earlier. It’s also not as complicated or administrative and easier to relate to. So much so, that in a rather unusual move NSA decided to weigh in and issue a denial.
Even though NSA blocked replies, this attempt at damage control only opened NSA to even more criticism from journalists, watchdogs and whistle-blowers alike. The part about being a foreign mission strikes as funnily naive given what we know about PRISM and other NSA efforts. Secondly, Snowden pointed out people don’t have to be targets to have their data intercepted years ago. It can be collected incidentally or in bulk. However, being a target does mean there’s has to be a corresponding FISA court order so there’s a chance this statement looks very formal and legalese on purpose, not to genuinely address any of the criticism but to shield the NSA from any legal action.
While there’s a considerable distrust towards intelligence power structures on all sides of the political spectrum historically it was usually left that voiced their concerns, for example in response to COINTELPRO. Nowadays with the liberal mainstream media sector being increasingly subservient, we can see an interesting shift in dynamic. Independent journalists are now the ones doing the heavy lifting but there’s also a growing amount of adversarial voices coming from the traditionally conservative base. From this perspective having older Fox News viewers exposed to negative NSA and CIA coverage is rather atypical and something NSA would definitely like to avoid.
Even though the general debate around Tucker Carlson's claims proves our understanding of Snowden leaks not only hasn't deepened but has actually regressed - it did force NSA and partially CIA into the spotlight. It reminded many why NSA is not our friend, brought many of their past wrongdoings back into the news cycle. Both political sides fine-tuned their arguments. Tucker isn't compared to Alex Jones or ridiculed anymore (though this was replaced with him being called un-American) and at the same time, Fox viewers also seem to have a better grasp at why this isn't just about Tucker but also about other hosts, journalists and generally the entire population. Even Tucker displayed a bit of modesty: "I've learned the last week that in Washington, the fact that federal government is reading your emails is no big deal (...) there's no expectations of privacy whatsoever" before adding "well, we have to push back". I guess we can call that a silver lining.