By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

USA Today at the brink

USA Today may have a serious problem on its hands. This hasn’t reached Jack Kelley proportions, and it may not. But a week after the paper broke a story alleging that the nation’s three largest telephone companies were handing over their customers’ calling lists to the National Security Agency, the paper’s editors must find themselves desperately hoping that it doesn’t all fall apart.

We now know that two of the three phone companies — BellSouth and Verizon — have issued firm, unambiguous denials. Here’s the item I posted on BellSouth yesterday, with relevant links. The Verizon denial is reported today by the Washington Post here and the New York Times here. Both papers claim that USA Today might have gotten it right with respect to Verizon if it turns out that a recently acquired subsdiary, MCI, had been cooperating with the NSA. Well, yes. But clearly the burden of proof has shifted from the defendant to the plaintiff: USA Today has to offer some evidence that its story is true. Now.

USA Today’s account today offers this:

Long-distance calls placed by BellSouth and Verizon subscribers can traverse the networks of other carriers who collect a variety of information for billing purposes. Verizon’s statement leaves open the possibility that the NSA directed its requests to long-distance companies, or that call data was collected by means other than Verizon handing them over, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

That strikes me as a pretty thin reed on which to be hanging such an important story. Moreover, USA Today has clearly lost control, given that it’s pointing to the speculative musings (“leaves open the possibility,” indeed) of another news organization in order to keep its exclusive alive. (I was not able to locate the AP story in my rather cursory search, and am relying on USA Today’s description. Perhaps not a smart move on my part.)

Take a look at the Verizon statement USA Today included in its original story last Thursday: “We do not comment on national security matters, we act in full compliance with the law and we are committed to safeguarding our customers’ privacy.” Not exactly confirmation, is it?

And in a preview of coming attractions, here’s what AT&T said in that same story: “We do not comment on matters of national security, except to say that we only assist law enforcement and government agencies charged with protecting national security in strict accordance with the law.” It wouldn’t exactly be a surprise if AT&T issues a denial later today.

We are dealing with some incredibly sensitive material, and it’s hard to know exactly what to think. Given the stakes, it’s possible that USA Today got the story more or less right, and that BellSouth and Verizon have issued denials on hypertechnical grounds that we’re not in a position to evaluate.

But given that the original story was based on unnamed sources who may or may not know what they’re talking about, and given that the paper grasps at that straw from the AP today, it doesn’t look good.

Update: I just found this on Romenesko. Think Harry Jaffe might like to have it back?

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  1. Anonymous

    I think the denial-on-hypertechnical grounds theory is probably the right one. As soon as the story broke, Bush right out of the gates with a pathetic defense (and an attack on leakers). Since then, Orrin Hatch has said that the Senate was informed, as was the FISA court. And Bush himself confirmed it yesterday (only to have it de-confirmed later by Tony Snow). So the story is likely true, but the telcoms are latching onto some obscure “definition of is”.

  2. Steve

    Can someone who knows more about this than me fact-check something? I was under the impression that there’s a type of telecom anti-terrorism legal warrant (as part of the Patriot Act? FISA?) that requires the telecom to give up information AND requires that the telecom NOT INFORM the customer that they have given out the info.If this sort of reasoning applies to the telecom info in the USA Today story, would it be illegal for the telecom to say that the info has been provided to the NSA?Or am I just hopelessly confusing different issues?

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Steve –If the telecoms want to tell the truth, wouldn’t that lead to a “no comment”? Instead, we’re getting flat-out denials.

  4. Man who misses strings and tin cans

    These are the same telecoms who are giving us this shamefull argument of “up is down / black is white” with the Net Neutrality issue (like this filth And the “A La Carte” Cable Channel issue. And the open access to their infrastructure issue. I don’t trust those slimes one bit…I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they’re taking a page from the Bush Administration and just flat out lying. Lie loud enough and long enough and people start to think it’s the truth.

  5. Steve

    Dan – I dunno.But FYI, Josh Marshall is doing a lot of posts on this issue. And his take is – Verizon is lying.

  6. Dan Kennedy

    Steve –I love Josh, but he has no evidence — just “common sense.” The weakness of USA Today’s defense is something I find troubling as well. Pointing to a speculative AP story about how they might still be right is not very reassuring.

  7. Anonymous

    Dan, ThinkProgress has this:”Ordinarily, a company that conceals their transactions and activities from the public would violate securities law. But a presidential memorandum signed by the President on May 5 allows the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, to authorize a company to conceal activities related to national security. (See 15 U.S.C. 78m(b)(3)(A))” mind boggling. If this is true, it’s . . . . scary.

  8. Constant

    Anon 12:10I attempted to post this follow-up at Think Progress. There’s the small matter of the Harlow Precedent . . . I buy the “there’s an intermediary”-theory for billing.

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