News & Politics

Is the Government Spying on Journalists? A Majority of Americans Weigh In With Their Answer

Photo via Gage Skidmore

Last month, Fox’s Tucker Carlson dropped a bombshell at the top of his primetime show. He accused the National Security Agency of spying on him. He said whistleblowers told him that the agency was spying on his communications in an effort to get him taken off the air.

TUCKER CARLSON: It’s not just political protesters the government is spying on, yesterday, we heard from a whistleblower within the US government who reached out to warn us that the NSA, the National Security Agency, is monitoring our electronic communications and is planning to leak them in an attempt to take this show off the air. 

Now, that’s a shocking claim and ordinarily would be skeptical of it. It’s illegal for the NSA to spy on American citizens. It’s a crime. It’s not a third-world country. Things like that should not happen in America. But unfortunately, they do happen, and in this case, they did happen. The whistleblower who is in a position to know repeated back to us information about a story that we are working on that could have only come directly from my texts and emails. There’s no other possible source for that information, period. 

The NSA responded that Tucker and his show are not and have never been “targets.” But it did not categorically deny reading his emails and texts or those of his staff, raising the possibility that it did read them. It fudged around the question of him being a “target” in one way or another.

If that sounds overly lawyerly, I lived through the Clinton years, during which the nation was forced to debate the meaning of the word “is.”

Carlson’s revelation hasn’t been proven or disproven at this point. Here’s the NSA’s response:

“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,” the NSA said in a statement on Twitter. “NSA has a foreign intelligence mission. We target foreign powers to generate insights on foreign activities that could harm the United States.”

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

Suppose they targeted a foreign national who was communicating with Carlson. That’s all it would take to make the NSA’s targeting statement legally true but morally false.

If the NSA is using the word “target” in some legalistic or categorical way, it would have ways around that as well.

Carlson’s accusation raised a very important question: Does the United States government spy on journalists? We know it has in the past. We know it has been accused of spying on journalist Sharyl Attkisson, though no one was ever charged.

In 2013, the Obama administration spied on Fox News reporter James Rosen and editors at the Associated Press.

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We also know that several military leaders targeted Carlson when he objected to specific changes in military policies, as is his right as a citizen. Why did the military launch PR airstrikes on Carlson, a lifelong supporter of the military, and not, say, any Democrat who has smeared the military over the past couple of decades? For that matter, it could have gone after Mark Cuban for funding the anti-military movie Redacted many years ago, but that was a different time.

A majority of Americans does believe the government spies on journalists according to a new Rasmussen poll. That would be illegal unless the journalist in question is suspected of a crime.

A new national telephone and online survey by Rasmussen Reports, sponsored by Ron Coleman and Coleman Nation, finds that 59% of Likely U.S. Voters believe it is at least somewhat likely that the U.S. government spies on critical journalists and political opponents, including 36% who think it’s Very Likely. Twenty-one percent (21%) of voters don’t think it’s likely the government is spying on opponents, and 20% are not sure. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

The survey of 1,000 U.S. Likely Voters was conducted on June 30-July 1, 2021 by Rasmussen Reports. The margin of sampling error is +/- 3 percentage points with a 95% level of confidence. Field work for all Rasmussen Reports surveys is conducted by Pulse Opinion Research, LLC. See methodology.

Sixty-six percent (66%) of Republicans, 52% of Democrats and 57% of voters not affiliated with either major party believe it’s at least somewhat likely the U.S. government spies on critical journalists and political opponents.

On the surface that’s a non-partisan breakdown, but that friend of yours who really likes the terrible job Joe Biden is doing? They ignore other realities as well.

President Joe Biden’s strongest supporters are less likely to think the federal government is spying on Americans. Thirty-nine percent (39%) of voters who Strongly Approve of Biden’s job performance as president believe it’s at least somewhat likely the government is spying on critical journalists and political opponents, whereas among voters who Strongly Disapprove of Biden’s performance, 75% think it’s likely the government is conducting such surveillance.

Imagine that.

If you think the government is illegally spying on journalists despite the laws on the books and the First Amendment that protects them, you’re in the majority. Joe Biden and his administration have, from the beginning, laid the groundwork to justify even more of it, too.