A potentially significant problem has arisen with USA Today’s big story of last Thursday, in which it was reported that the nation’s three largest phone companies have allowed the National Security Agency to track their customers’ calls. One of those companies, BellSouth, now says it did not participate. Here is BellSouth’s statement:
There has been much speculation in the last several days about the role that BellSouth may have played in efforts by the National Security Agency (NSA) and other governmental agencies to keep our nation safe.
As a result of media reports that BellSouth provided massive amounts of customer calling information under a contract with the NSA, the Company conducted an internal review to determine the facts. Based on our review to date, we have confirmed no such contract exists and we have not provided bulk customer calling records to the NSA.
BellSouth has built a successful business because of the trust that our customers have placed with us. We will continue to take our obligations to our customers seriously.
What does USA Today have to say about this? Reporter Leslie Cauley, who wrote the original story, reports:
USA TODAY first contacted BellSouth five weeks ago in reporting the story on the NSA’s program. The night before the story was published, USA TODAY described the story in detail to BellSouth, and the company did not challenge the newspaper’s account. The company did issue a statement, saying: “BellSouth does not provide any confidential customer information to the NSA or any governmental agency without proper legal authority.”
In an interview Monday, BellSouth spokesman Jeff Battcher said the company was not asking for a correction from USA TODAY.
Asked to define “bulk customer calling records,” Battcher said: “We are not providing any information to the NSA, period.” He said he did not know whether BellSouth had a contract with the Department of Defense, which oversees the NSA.
That is one convoluted passage. It’s hard to know what to think. Is BellSouth relying on loopholes in its denials? Or is USA Today making it appear that way in order to preserve its story? And what does it mean that the company at first “did not challenge the newspaper’s account”? How much time did USA Today give the company to respond? Was the official (or officials) contacted even in a position to know?
Frankly, the company’s contention, in its statement, that it had to conduct an internal review before it could give a definitive answer, strikes me as believable. Cauley does write that she contact BellSouth five weeks before the story appeared, but we don’t know the substance of that contact. As for describing the story in detail “[t]he night before it was published,” that more or less speaks for itself.
We need answers.