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The latest NSA story about the collection of tens of millions of Americans' phone records broke on the pages of USA Today. The paper reported the database relied on data provided by three major phone companies. Other newspapers soon confirmed that NSA had created the database, but two phone companies started issuing statements denying their involvement and on that part of the story, USA Today was very much alone.
NPR's David Folkenflik reports.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:
USA Today's scoop dominated the news for days. President Bush was asked about it at a press conference on Tuesday.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: We got accused of not connecting dots prior to September 11th and we're going to connect dots to protect the American people within the law. The program he's asking about is one that has been briefed to members of the United States Congress.
FOLKENFLIK: President Bush's new press secretary, Tony Snow, denied the president had confirmed the existence of the NSA program described by USA Today. But other newspapers soon did it for him. Kent Paulson is USA Today's editor-in-chief and these are his first public comments on the NSA article.
Mr. KENT PAULSON (USA Today): That story's been out there for more than a week and no one has refuted the core reporting of USA Today, that there is in fact a database that keeps track of Americans' phone calls in some form.
FOLKENFLIK: In that article, USA Today reported that AT&T, Bell South and Verizon had provided data to the government and had even been offered money by the NSA to do so. Verizon said it had never provided any information about the domestic phone calls of its customers and Bell South today demanded USA Today retract portions of the story, saying it had no contracts with the NSA and did not hand over tens of millions of phone records.
USA Today's Ken Paulson tells NPR the companies had refused any meaningful comment before the story was printed.
Mr. PAULSON: We were surprised because we've talking to both companies for literally weeks. They knew this story was being written. They knew what we were going to say and frankly they took some time in deciding how to craft a response.
FOLKENFLIK: The reporter on the story, Leslie Cauley, is well versed in the telecommunications beat and she has written a book on AT&T. Her article relied on unnamed sources who are said to be closely familiar with the creation of the database. USA Today has tight policies discouraging the use of anonymous sources, but a senior editor reviewed each unnamed source carefully.
During Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's coverage of the Watergate scandal The Washington Post was often challenged on its initial stories and often alone on its scoops.
Barry Sussman was the editor at The Post who oversaw them.
Mr. BARRY SUSSMAN (The Washington Post): What you have to do is affirm that you went about it correctly, that you did the reporting as well as you can do it and you have to see if there's further reporting to be done.
FOLKENFLIK: Several USA Today staffers spoke to NPR on condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized to talk about the story. They say the phone companies' denials have caused some anxiety inside the newsroom. Kent Paulson says the newspaper has painstakingly double checked the story.
Mr. PAULSON: And our sources have told us that they think we got it right. They know we've got it right. And they've reiterated that what they told us is what showed up in the newspaper.
FOLKENFLIK: But Paulson says USA Today will give Bell South's call for a retraction careful attention. Some journalists say the phone companies denials seem carefully phrased. Verizon, for example, added most of its long distance costumers by acquiring MCI. Its denial did not cover former MCI customers. As Barry Sussman and other journalists suggested today, being alone can be lonely or it can mean you're well ahead of the pack.
David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.
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