‘USA Today’ Admits Parts of Phone Surveillance Scoop Were Wrong

By: Joe Strupp

USA Today revealed Friday that a much-debated May 11 story claiming that three major telecommunications companies had actively cooperated with the National Security Agency to provide domestic telephone records was not completely accurate.

In an editor’s note and a related news story, both published today, the newspaper stood by its report that the NSA had compiled a “massive database of domestic call records,” but admitted that reports of AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon contracting to provide such records were not accurate.

“Based on its reporting after the May 11 article, USA TODAY has now concluded that while the NSA 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 NSA to provide bulk calling records to that database,” the editor’s note stated, in part. “USA TODAY will continue to report on the contents and scope of the database as part of its ongoing coverage of national security and domestic surveillance.”

The note also stated that, several days after the original story, “BellSouth and Verizon specifically denied that they were among the companies that had contracted with the NSA to provide bulk calling records. The denial was unexpected. USA Today had spoken with BellSouth and Verizon for several weeks about the substance of the report. The day before the article was published, the reporter read the sections of the article concerning BellSouth and Verizon to representatives of the companies and asked for a denial before publication.”

In the related story today, the paper reported that five members of the congressional intelligence committees told USA Today that they had been told in secret briefings that BellSouth did not turn over call records to the NSA, while three lawmakers said they had been told that Verizon had not participated in the NSA database, and four said that Verizon’s subsidiary MCI did turn over records to the NSA.

USA Today spokesman Steve Anderson stressed that the main element of the original story, that the NSA phone records database existed, remained accurate. He said that was the most important thrust of the story.

“This is an important story that holds up very well,” he told E&P. “The heart of the reporting is that the database exists, the NSA is collecting records and there have been no denials that it exists.” He went on to note that 19 members of congress briefed on the program have confirmed its existence to the paper.

But he said the fact that the paper could not confirm its earlier report that BellSouth and Verizon had entered into a contract with the NSA to provide the records is necessary to report as well. “We want to make sure the reader understands as much as we understand about it,” he said.

Lesley Cauley, the reporter who wrote the initial story, could not be reached for comment. Editor Ken Paulson was unavailable due to a trip out of town.

Anderson said no action would be been taken against Cauley and defended her work, calling her “one of the most senior telecommunications reporters in the country.”

When asked to explain why the paper had reported the erroneous information, Anderson declined to offer specifics about the sourcing involved. But he said editors did not believe they had been misled. “All of our sources have great credibility,” he told E&P. “Our sources acted in good faith.”

He also said no plans were in the works to change the paper’s reporting policies or reviews in any way due to this story’s fallout.

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