Update: Phone Companies and the NSA

Three of the nation's largest telecom companies have come forward to say they did not comply with government requests to turn over customer records. Verizon made their announcement late today. The news renders last week's stunning report in USA Today a bit murky; the paper is standing by its story.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Verizon Communications today became the second company to deny allegations it supplied customer phone records to the National Security Agency. Last week, USA Today published an article that said three major telecom companies had given data about their customers to the government. The article said one company, Qwest Communications, had refused.

Joining us now is NPR's Jim Zarroli. And Jim, let's start with this statement today from Verizon. What did the company say?

JIM ZARROLI: Well, to begin with, Verizon said it wouldn't comment on the program because it's classified. Then it went on to say in kind of harsh language that the media reports about the program have been simply false. It says Verizon was not approached by the NSA and it did enter into any agreement to provide data about its customers to the agency. One error, it said, that has been repeated in the stories over the past few days is that simple calls across town are being tracked. Verizon said it doesn't make records of local calls because it doesn't bill for them.

But at any rate, it said, it doesn't provide data about anything, wireless or landline calls, either. As I said, the language is very strong. It says there are glaring and repeated falsehoods in the stories.

BLOCK: Okay, that's a statement from Verizon. One of the other companies that the USA Today article said was supplying these phone records was Bell South. What does that company have to say?

ZARROLI: Well, that was yesterday. Bell South said more or less the same thing, if perhaps more delicately. It said that it had looked into all the details and has concluded that it never had a contract with the NSA either. One of the questions here that you have to ask is why it took these companies so long to deny these allegations. The story ran last Thursday. Presumably they were given an opportunity to respond even before that. You know, it may be that these are just really big companies and it took them a long time to, you know, to craft the kind of carefully worded statement they wanted to make. But we don't know. One of the problems here is that the companies are really not taking any questions from reporters about this.

BLOCK: Now, USA Today has issued a statement saying that it will stand behind its story. It's a story that relied on anonymous sources last week. What are we to make of this, with companies saying one thing, the newspaper saying another?

ZARROLI: Right, USA Today said it will look into the statements that Verizon has made. It will not dismiss them right away, but it believed its reporting is accurate. It said it had, its reporters had talked to people with direct access of the program.

The problem here is that all this information is classified. The truth may lie in the wording of these denials. Perhaps it wasn't the NSA. Perhaps it was another agency. Maybe there wasn't a contract. Maybe it was some kind of informal arrangement. You know, or maybe the story is just completely wrong and if it is, this has the makings of a really major press scandal. Kind of like the one involving 60 Minutes 2 and President Bush's National Guard service.

But we can't really say for sure because the companies are not really taking questions about this.

BLOCK: And there was a lot of specificity in that story, especially about the context with the phone company that allegedly refused, Qwest Communications.

ZARROLI: Right. Exactly. It said that it had information, very specific information it gave about somebody at Qwest describing the process of talking to the NSA about this program.

BLOCK: What can you tell us generally, Jim, about the relationships between these telecom companies and the government, in particular about, with intelligence agencies?

ZARROLI: Well, one of the things that's odd is that the Bush administration has not really completely denied this story. I mean, the president was asked about it in a news conference today and he said we don't listen to domestic phone calls without court approval. But he didn't go much beyond that.

Also AT&T, which was also named in the story, the USA Today story, has not denied that, the allegations. In fact, it said it had an obligation to insist law enforcement and other government agencies responsible for protecting the public welfare. If the story were completely wrong, I don't think it would have said that.

BLOCK: Jim, thanks very much.

ZARROLI: You're welcome.

BLOCK: NPR's Jim Zarroli in New York.

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