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

A lull in the USA Today story

It looks like we’ve hit a lull in the possible unraveling of the USA Today story over whether the nation’s three largest phone companies gave their customers’ calling records to the National Security Agency. Here are a few newish developments:

  • The New York Times today reports that the NSA may really have been after long-distance records, not local calls, which could explain the responses put forth by the phone companies — including the denials issued earlier this week by BellSouth and Verizon. Comment: If you’re trying to figure out from this whether USAT got it right, good luck. The Times report appears to prop up the gist of the USAT story, but the details are different from what USAT reported last week.
  • Yesterday, as at least one Media Nation reader has noted, the liberal site Think Progress posted an item reporting that, on May 5, President Bush signed a memorandum that “allows the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, to authorize a company to conceal activities related to national security.” The item continues: “There is no evidence that this executive order has been used by John Negroponte with respect to the telcos. Of course, if it was used, we wouldn’t know about it.” Bolstering that is a story posted on by Declan McCullagh that ominously begins: “An AT&T attorney indicated in federal court on Wednesday that the Bush administration may have provided legal authorization for the telecommunications company to open its network to the National Security Agency.” Read the whole thing. Comment: How does this relate to the USA Today story? Don’t know. But clearly it’s more evidence that the White House is contemptuous of our civil liberties and the public’s right to know what its government is doing.
  • Josh Marshall has posted several times on this, and has flatly stated that BellSouth and Verizon are “lying.” How does he know? “Common sense” and a “hunch.” Well, now. I like Josh’s stuff, but I think he ought to do better than that. He also points to a commentary by Vaughn Ververs, who thinks the USAT story might be “slipping away.” Marshall disagrees with Ververs. Comment: I think Ververs might be right, but I’m not ready to walk away yet. But USAT needs to undertake a serious effort to rehabilitate its story. If it can.

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  1. Sven

    Are they outsourcing their call records?

  2. Philocrites

    AT&T seems to have less grounds to claim not to be involved. John Markoff’s Feb 25, 2006, New York Times story about an NSA shopping expedition to Silicon Valley for new data-mining technologies discussed the AT&T data center in Kansas at the heart of a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation: Taking spying to higher level, agencies look for more ways to mine data (John Markoff, New York Times 2.25.06).

  3. whispers

    Dan,Do you think Qwest invented the story about being approached by the NSA? Do you think Qwest, if they were approached by the NSA, was the only company so approached?In your previous post, you said:”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.”You think it’s believable that the chief executives of the company wouldn’t know whether they were giving records of ALL their phone calls to the NSA? I found the BellSouth denial to be too couched in bizarre language that makes me go along with the “non-denial denial” explanation. Since the company would potentially face a massive lawsuit if they were passing on such information to the government, I don’t think we can simply take the denial at face value, and say “Well, they say they’re innocent, so that’s that.”

  4. Anonymous

    Seems like there are 2 issues: the story, and the way USA Today has covered it.I agree with Dan that the USA Today piece is a little spotty. But I don’t find any of the highly rhetorical and legalistic denials we’re seeing credible. Given what we already know about warrantless NSA spying on Americans – the stuff the White House doesn’t deny, and has confirmed by vowing to catch the whistleblowers – I have a hunch that Josh Marshall’s hunch is correct.They’re lying.

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