USA Today Backs Off Report on Phone Records

Posted on July 1, 2006 - 4:46pm.

From: NY Times

June 30, 2006
USA Today Backs Off Report on Phone Records

In a note to readers today, USA Today backed off an earlier assertion that BellSouth and Verizon had contracted to provide telephone calling records to the National Security Agency.

The note referred to an article published May 11 that said those two companies and AT&T had provided calling records to the security agency, without warrants, for a database it was compiling to detect terrorist activity.

BellSouth and Verizon have since denied participation in the program. AT&T has declined to comment on the matter.

In an article published today that accompanied its note to readers, USA Today said it had confirmed with 19 lawmakers that the security agency had built a database of Americans' domestic calls, including length of calls and numbers dialed.

The original article intensified debate over whether and how the battle against terrorism is compromising individual liberties and privacy. Telecommunications law requires a court order to obtain calling records, but there is disagreement about whether exceptions could be made when the government cites national security considerations.

"Based on its reporting after the May 11 article, USA Today has now concluded that while the N.S.A. has built a massive domestic calls record database involving the domestic call records of telecommunications companies, the newspaper cannot confirm that BellSouth or Verizon contracted with the N.S.A. to provide bulk calling records to that database," the newspaper wrote in its note to readers.

Records directly turned over by carriers might be only one of several sources for such a database. The New York Times reported in December that the National Security Agency had gained backdoor access to streams of domestic and international phone and e-mail traffic with the cooperation of telecommunications companies.

The USA Today article on May 11, written by Leslie Cauley, a longtime telecommunications reporter, was based on interviews with unidentified people said to have knowledge of the arrangement.

Steven Anderson, a spokesman for USA Today, said today that the newspaper had one of the strictest policies in the industry regarding the use of unidentified sources, and that "we have no plans to change our existing policy." Nor, he said, did the paper anticipate any action regarding any staff members involved in the article.

"At the heart of our report is the fact that the N.S.A. is collecting phone-call records of Americans, reaching into homes and businesses, and there have been no denials that the database exists," he said. USA Today's note to readers did not address directly whether BellSouth or Verizon might have provided records to the database on an ad hoc basis but did not "contract" to do so. On that point, Mr. Anderson said, "The readers note speaks for itself."

A BellSouth spokesman, Jeff Battcher, said today: "As we have stated numerous times, the N.S.A. never contacted BellSouth, and we never supplied customer calling records to the N.S.A. In addition, we do not and have never had a contract with the N.S.A." BellSouth had previously demanded a retraction of the USA Today article.

In the aftermath of the USA Today article in May, The New York Times reported that the security agency's efforts to collect phone data appeared to be focusing not on the local phone companies, like BellSouth, Verizon and Qwest, but instead on the long-distance companies, including the former MCI and AT&T.

In mid-May, Verizon issued a statement saying that it had not turned over calling records to the security agency, but left open the possibility that MCI, which it recently acquired, had done so. The company said Verizon had not provided customer records to the security agency "from the time of the 9/11 attacks until just four months ago," around the time it absorbed MCI.

Verizon said today that it had no further comment.

USA Today said today that the denials in the aftermath of its May 11 article were "unexpected," noting that the reporter had read sections of the article to both BellSouth and Verizon before publication, seeking comment. At that point, neither company denied cooperation, the newspaper said, but both affirmed their policies of acting in compliance with the law and with respect for their customers' privacy.

For its part, AT&T said today: "The news media have carried reports alleging that AT&T is participating in an N.S.A. terrorist surveillance program. Unfortunately, the law does not permit AT&T to respond to those allegations." AT&T is the name taken by SBC, the largest provider of local phone service, after it acquired the AT&T long-distance business last year.

Telecommunications industry analysts and security experts have said that a database of long-distance calling records could effectively include local call records in cases where customers use their local phone service to place a long-distance call. Such a database also would include information about international calls that, when they enter domestic shores, travel over the long-distance network.

There has been widespread disagreement among telecommunications and security experts about the potential effectiveness of culling such a database. The theory is that the spy agency could look for calling patterns — say, for instance, regions of the country thought to be called by terrorists, or times of day they might place such calls — to find potential subjects for further investigation. But some privacy advocates and security experts have said such a tool amounts to finding a needle in a haystack.

Ken Belson and Katharine Q. Seelye contributed reporting for this article.