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A Story Slipping Away?

(AP / CBS)
Are we watching a story fall apart before our very eyes? Something is certainly going on with that USA Today front-page splash about the secret NSA program to collect and analyze all the phone calls made within the United States. The story, published last week, sparked a fierce debate about privacy and the government's ability to spy on Americans. It drew rebukes from even administration allies. There were no blanket denials made by the administration and no protestations of inaccurate reporting by those in the know. And there were no denials made by the phone companies named in the story as having provided information to the NSA – at least until now.

This afternoon, Verizon became the second of three companies identified in the USA Today story to deny having provided bulk customer information to the NSA. To backtrack a moment, the USA Today story claimed that Verizon, BellSouth and AT&T had entered into a contract with the NSA in the aftermath of 9/11 to provide data on its customers. According to the paper, the NSA "has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans" under the program and one source was quoted calling it the "largest database ever assembled in the world." The database, reportedly only consisting of phone numbers, are analyzed to detect "calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity."

Now, however, both Verizon and BellSouth are denying having been asked or having provided such information to the NSA. A statement from Verizon this afternoon stated, "contrary to the media reports, Verizon was not asked by NSA to provide, nor did Verizon provide, customer phone records." Similarly, BellSouth yesterday said "that it never gave the NSA that information, nor was it ever asked by the NSA to provide that information." So far, no comment from AT&T, but there appears enough here to start wondering about the accuracy of the original USA Today story.

It is curious that these two companies took several days to issue these denials (the story broke last Thursday and the companies did not deny it then). A BellSouth spokesperson said the company wanted to do a thorough review to ensure that no such agreement had been made. It's also worth considering there have been several class-action lawsuits filed in the wake of the USA Today story, so that could have something to do with the denials.

Still, we're entering some rocky territory, especially for a story about a "secret" program based entirely on anonymous sources. Given the administration's refusal to confirm or deny the report, the company denials and the anonymous sources, it may be time to ask how we'll ever get the truth out of this story.

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