USA Today Takes Back Some of NSA Phone-Record Report

By Frank Ahrens and Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 1, 2006

USA Today has acknowledged that it cannot prove key elements of a blockbuster May 11 story in which it reported that several telecommunications companies were handing over customer phone records to the National Security Agency.

The May article named AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Corp. and BellSouth Corp. as cooperating with the NSA in compiling an unprecedented database of domestic phone records. Though the NSA was not listening to calls, the spy agency was scouring the records to search for ties to terrorism, the paper said.

The report angered the White House, alarmed privacy advocates and sent other news media scurrying to match the story.

Yesterday, in a lengthy article and accompanying "note to our readers," the nation's largest-circulation newspaper said it could not confirm that BellSouth or Verizon contracted with the NSA, which is charged with intercepting and analyzing foreign communications to look for possible threats to U.S. national security.

The correction illustrates the difficulty of reporting sensitive and often classified government actions, as anonymous sources sometimes backtrack, pursue their own agendas by leaking selective information or say more than they know. News organizations attempt to assemble authoritative stories from multiple sources and agencies, creating plenty of room for potential error.

"We take every error seriously," USA Today Editor Ken Paulson said in an interview. "This was obviously a big story. . . . All we can do is set the record straight."

Reporter Leslie Cauley revealed her unidentified sources to a top editor, Paulson said, and "the sources are credible," adding, "They have a track record with Leslie and she trusts them." But several members of the congressional intelligence committees later contradicted the sources on the question of whether Verizon and BellSouth had provided information to the NSA.

USA Today stood by much of its initial report, saying it had followed up with lawmakers and intelligence and telecom sources. Yesterday's article reported: "Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees confirm that the National Security Agency has compiled a massive database of phone call records."

In the next sentence, the paper wrote: "But some lawmakers also say that cooperation by the nation's telecommunication companies was not as extensive as first reported by USA Today on May 11."

Yesterday, Verizon said it had no further comment on the matter, referring instead to its May 16 rebuttal of the USA Today story.

USA Today said the BellSouth and Verizon denials that came after the May 11 article were "unexpected." The paper said its reporters read sections of the article to sources at the companies and gave them the opportunity to deny their involvement. BellSouth did not deny its participation, and Verizon said it would not comment on national security issues.

So USA Today ran the story. Later, BellSouth said it had conducted an internal investigation into the matter and concluded that the company did not contract with the NSA or turn over phone records, the paper reported yesterday.

"As we have stated numerous times, the NSA never contacted BellSouth, and we never supplied customer calling records to the NSA," BellSouth spokesman Jeff Battcher wrote in an e-mail. "In addition we do not and have never had a contract with the NSA."

Some conservative bloggers instantly reacted to the USA Today correction by citing it as another example of what some on the right see as liberal, anti-Bush sentiment in the "mainstream media."

Some liberal bloggers noted the USA Today story accompanying the correction as further proof of domestic spying by the government but did not mention the correction.

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