Phone Companies Reject Stories of NSA Cooperation

Phone companies fight back against news stories linking them to domestic surveillance. USA Today is standing by its account of phone firms helping the National Security Agency put together a massive database of communications traffic.

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Ms. LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Coming up, high-tech encroaches on nature's majesty. But first, the big telephone companies are fighting back against news stories linking them to domestic spying. USA Today broke the story last week, saying that phone companies helped NSA put together a massive database of domestic communications traffic. Bell South has gone so far as to ask USA Today for a retraction of what the company calls false and unsubstantiated statements. But USA Today is standing by its story, which the U.S. government has refused to confirm or deny. Joining us to discuss the eavesdropping hullabaloo is NPR's Larry Abramson. Larry, hi.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: It doesn't sound like the phone company denials are making this story go away, are they?

ABRAMSON: No, there are a lot of journalists who are parsing every single word in these phone company denials and they look like they were written by lawyers saying that the phone companies didn't have a contract with the National Security Agency. But the phone companies have now been calling reporters, bending over backwards to say, look, we're not coming up with a funny legal language. We really didn't do this. And without any government comment denying that this was actually going on, it's a little bit difficult to take these phone company denials at face value.

General Michael Hayden didn't really help by refusing to comment on this part of the NSA's surveillance program during his confirmation hearings. But the story has also been kept alive by the fact that there are many other sources for the story besides the USA Today reports that everybody has been referring to.

WERTHEIMER: You mentioned General Hayden's confirmation hearings to be head of CIA. Did we learn anything about the extent of NSA domestic surveillance of those hearings?

ABRAMSON: Almost nothing. He really refused to comment on these latest allegations that the NSA was compiling a phone traffic database. He continued to acknowledge what he has acknowledged for months, and that is that he actually was the architect of the other part of the program, monitoring international calls. But no, he just wouldn't acknowledge that. He kept saying we'll talk about that in closed session, and of course the funny thing is that the members of Congress have actually been briefed on this program the day before the hearings, but they couldn't talk about it because they've been sworn to secrecy, so there was quite a dance going on with him.

But we did see, again, that General Hayden was deeply involved in all of this. He took credit for basically being the architect for the program, whatever its extent is, and again, the Administration has basically decided in this case they're not going to confirm or deny these allegations. Maybe they think it's better if the bad guys don't know whether or not this is going on. Even if it's not going on, maybe they'll be afraid that it is.

WERTHEIMER: So Larry, short of government confirmation, there hasn't really been anybody saying publicly how extensive the program really is. How are we ever going to find out?

ABRAMSON: Well, that's right. Most of what we know is based on anonymous sources. The only other way that the information might come out is there are a number of civil suits that have been filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and by other civil liberties groups and by telephone consumers. The government has moved to dismiss those suits, saying that they would reveal state secrets. And it's clear that General Michael Hayden, who is certain to be confirmed as head of the CIA, he decided that he is going to push to make sure that not only this program remains secret, but that most of these kinds of efforts by the intelligence agencies should remain secret and that the leaks about the program are what the real threat are to national security.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Larry Abramson, thanks very much.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

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