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

Stumbling toward the truth

It’s been a little more than a week since USA Today reported that the nation’s three largest phone companies turned over their customers’ calling records to the National Security Agency. Two of those companies, BellSouth and Verizon, have issued denials; now BellSouth is demanding a retraction. Is USAT’s story in tatters?

The answer, I think, is no. I suspect that USAT got much of the story right, some of it wrong, and lacks the wit and the expertise to defend itself properly. (And yes, this is different from what I said yesterday.) The Washington Post’s Arshad Mohammed, in reporting on the latest from BellSouth, offers this today:

“The story came out in USA Today … and then all this dancing starting, which doesn’t give people reason to believe it wasn’t true,” said Mary J. Culnan, a professor at Bentley College and a privacy expert. “These kind of carefully worded press releases where people just don’t flat out say ‘We didn’t do it’ — I think that’s why people continue to be suspicious.”

That sounds about right.

Perhaps USAT’s best defense is that its exclusive of last Thursday wasn’t all that exclusive. On Dec. 24, the New York Times’ Eric Lichtblau and James Risen — the same reporters who had broken the warrantless-wiretapping story — weighed in with a meaty report that pretty much had everything USAT had, missing only the names of the phone companies. The headline: “Spy Agency Mined Vast Data Trove, Officials Report.” Lichtblau and Risen wrote:

The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system’s main arteries, they said.

As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic surveillance without warrants, the N.S.A. has gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications, the officials said….

What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation….

Officials in the government and the telecommunications industry who have knowledge of parts of the program say the N.S.A. has sought to analyze communications patterns to glean clues from details like who is calling whom, how long a phone call lasts and what time of day it is made, and the origins and destinations of phone calls and e-mail messages. Calls to and from Afghanistan, for instance, are known to have been of particular interest to the N.S.A. since the Sept. 11 attacks, the officials said.

This so-called “pattern analysis” on calls within the United States would, in many circumstances, require a court warrant if the government wanted to trace who calls whom.

To my knowledge, no one has demanded that this story be retracted. You may not have bothered to read the Times on Christmas Eve, but, as you can see, it was one of the pieces for which Lichtblau and Risen won a Pulitzer. So go back and read their story now.

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  1. Anonymous

    I did read the NYT story when it first appeared. Which is one reason why I have been a little surprised at the reaction to the USA Today story. It’s been out there for a while – the administration thinks it can spy on us any way they want to, the telecoms are playing along, and Bush is fuming because the truth is getting out.

  2. Anonymous

    [Same Anon. as above.]Sorry to keep chiming in serially here, but here’s how I’m looking at this right now: 1. In his White House Briefing blog today, Dan Froomkin points out that Bush refuses to comment on whether or not the calling database described in the USA Today story exists. To me, the logical conclusion to draw from the president’s refusal to deny or confirm its existence is that, yes, it exists.2. The next question is, would such a project be technologically or practically feasible without the cooperation of the telephone companies? My best guess here would be no, unless the telecoms are massively infiltrated by secret government agents (not the most practical way to go about it).So I take as a given that the program exists, with the full cooperation of at least some major phone companies.3. The next question then is, could or would the FISA court issue a blanket warrant to spy on tens of millions of Americans in this way? No.So unless I’m just way off, I don’t see how the law isn’t being broken here. Of course, the White House could clear all this up by simply declaring that the USA Today story is completely wrong and that the database does not exist.

  3. Anonymous

    Ken Paulson defended the USA Today article on NPR yesterday. Here’s an extensive writeup, and a link to the audio: NPR points out, Bush initially confirmed the existence of the database, only to have Tony Snow subsequently backtrack to the position of refusing to confirm or deny.

  4. Steve

    Anon 2:25 (“unless the telecoms are massively infiltrated by secret government agents”) remided me of something I read in Talking Points: “phone companies are spooky places” – “telcos are filled with former intelligence community types doing engineering and software development”.With this government in charge, just because it sounds like “tin-foil hat” speculation doesn’t make it wrong!

  5. Anonymous

    Steve, I read that, too. I doubt the program in question could be carried out clandestinely without full cooperation of the telcos.

  6. Don

    You pinpointed the problem when you said that USAT got some of the story wrong. How can we trust major publications which don’t always get it right? Why do we have to keep looking for the bias when we’re reading the “news?”Quick example: A Medicare official said it is hard to say how often the government pays for botched health care. He was also sketchy on when they could stop it. “Sketchy” is perjorative and falsely implies that he was being deliberately evasive.

  7. Steve

    Off topic for the USAT story. But Dan, are you interested in what’s up with Jason Leopold and TruthOut’s story “Rove indicted” story last Saturday? They’re still sticking by the story, but no other news organization is reporting it.(There have been so many “Rove about to be indicted” stories, it’s getting to be fairly embarrassing when it never seems to actually happen.)

  8. Anonymous

    hatlo asked, “How can we trust major publicationswhich don’t always get it right?”I think always getting it right is impossible. The key attribute would be an aggressive willingness to go back, correct, revise, retract, do whatever is necessary to set the record straight.On the “sketchy” reference – without more context, I can’t say i share your interpretation of the usage.

  9. neil

    A little bit of dust tossed up and the issue is successfully obfuscated. Maybe it took the admin and telcoms a few days to realize they can simply deny it, or issue those non-denial denials. All they need to do is say “sez you, USAT–prove it!” This leaves the burden of further movement on the story up to the paper, and since all they seem to have is “we trust our anonymous sources”–the story can’t really proceed, seems to me, without someboby willing to go on the record. And the admin would toss anybody willing to do that in a very dark hole for abetting terrorists. People who would be outraged if this were actually happening can’t be sure it is, so are stuck once again left speculating. Piece of cake. Now that that’s out of the way they can get back to what they’re really interested in, figuring how to get our war with Iran underway.

  10. Anonymous

    For what it’s worth, has this, from AT&T technician/whistleblower Mark Klein:,70944-0.html?tw=wn_index_2

  11. neil

    Reliable Seymour Hersh has a good piece in this week’s New Yorker. This time he’s got a “security consultant working with a major telecommunications carrier”, describing how his client set up a “top-secret high-speed circuit” between its “main computer”, and a computer at Quantico. The link provided direct access to the carrier’s network core. (Oops, plagiarism! Add quotes to that sentence.) Such that it’s not a matter of turning over records to the NSA, which would require some monster database into which to deposit them. But rather, that the telcoms simply allowed access to the data. That’s a far simpler model–easy for NSA to query the telcoms’ databases remotely, there’s no need for them to have a duplicate database. Nice! And finesses such wrong questions as “did you give/hand over data to the NSA?” because it allows an honest denial. No, we didn’t hand over anything! True. But that’s the wrong question. And lets people like NSA ex-chief Inman’s say that they didn’t have the infrastructure for that–which is true, but misleading.Anyhoo the point being this goes to my earlier tinfoil-hat wearing remark that the distinction between commercial and govt data about you, will merge. In fact in this case it’s the same data–no need to duplicate it. One commercial entity manages the database, and can quietly allow access to it, by means of a little tweak to the database access privileges, to other commercial entities, for a fee, or by a govt agency, for your protection. And such a small change, unlike the galumphish work of duping a whole massive database, would be practically impossible for an outsider to prove, and the easiest thing in the world to deny.

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