WASHINGTON – USA Today acknowledged in a "note to our readers" Friday that it could not establish that BellSouth or Verizon contracted with the National Security Agency to provide it with customer calling records, as the newspaper had previously reported.
But spokesman Steve Anderson said "this is an important story that holds up well. At the heart of our report is the fact that NSA is collecting phone call records of millions of Americans."
"What we address in the editors' note," he said, "deals with the fact that we originally reported that the telephone companies were working under contract with the NSA. We've concluded that we cannot establish that BellSouth or Verizon entered into a contract with the NSA to provide the bulk calling records."
In an accompanying story, the newspaper reported Friday that lawmakers on House and Senate intelligence committees have said that while the NSA has amassed a huge database of calling records, cooperation with the NSA by telephone companies was not as extensive as USA Today initially reported on May 11.
USA Today at that time reported that, according to its sources, AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon all agreed to provide the agency with domestic call records. The newspaper said Friday that Verizon and BellSouth deny they contracted to provide the NSA with records of their customers' phone calls. AT&T has neither confirmed nor denied the newspaper's report.
BellSouth issued its own statement Friday saying it has never had such a contract with the NSA.
"As we have stated numerous times, the NSA never contacted BellSouth, and we never supplied customer calling records to the NSA," BellSouth said.
Some lawmakers briefed on the program said NSA has a database of domestic calls that includes numbers called and the length of conversations, without what was said. Five members of the intelligence committees said they'd been told by intelligence officials that AT&T, the nation's largest telecommunications company, did cooperate in providing NSA with call records.
Five lawmakers on the intelligence committees said they'd been told that BellSouth did not turn over call records, and three lawmakers said they'd been informed that Verizon did not turn over call records to the NSA.
Lawmakers who support the Bush administration's domestic spying program see the apparent gaps in the database as a problem.
"It's difficult to say you're covering all terrorist activity in the United States if you don't have all the (phone) numbers," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., told USA Today. "It probably would be better to have records of every telephone company."
In its note to readers, USA Today vowed to "continue to report on the contents and scope of the database as part of its ongoing coverage of national security and domestic surveillance."
Said Anderson: "There have been no denials that this database exists. Nineteen members of Congress who have been briefed following the May 11 article have confirmed the existence of the database."