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NSA Story Old News? Yes…And No.

Garrett Graff at Fishbowl DC, linking to a series of piece that cover the same ground as this week's USA Today blockbuster, wonders, "Is USA Today Story Old News?"

"To a lot of people who cover this subject closely the USA Today story didn't break any news," he writes. "It was just a more prominent story than the others that had been reported already this year."

Back in December, the New York Times wrote that telecommunications companies "have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists," according to "a former technology manager at a major telecommunications company." Slate followed that report with this:

A former telecom executive told us that efforts to obtain call details go back to early 2001, predating the 9/11 attacks and the president's now celebrated secret executive order. The source, who asked not to be identified so as not to out his former company, reports that the NSA approached U.S. carriers and asked for their cooperation in a "data-mining" operation, which might eventually cull "millions" of individual calls and e-mails…

The magnitude of the current collection effort is unprecedented and indeed marks a shift in how the NSA spies in the United States. The current program seems to involve a remarkable level of cooperation with private companies and extraordinarily expansive data-mining of questionable legality.

In March, Shane Harris offered up a comprehensive account. Patrick Radden Keefe got there around the same time in a column about network theory.

In light of this, an emailer to Fishbowl DC who reports on intelligence matters writes the following about this week's coverage of the story:

This is an example of 1.) some in the media's very short memory, and 2.) a sad commentary, in my opinion, that in order for some journalists to really grasp an issue, you have to practically beat them over the head with old information wrapped up in a new and flashy front page story with a big photo on it. No one I've talked to in the intelligence community or on the relevant congressional committees believe this is a new story, and most of them are left scratching their heads…When I hear Soledad O'Brien or even respected reporters on NPR going out and saying 'USA Today broke the story,' it makes them look stupid, and by extension the rest of us. It makes them look like they've had their heads in the sand about this NSA program. That's not good! This is one of the most important public policy stories in years. Journalists need to be on the ball here.
It's hard to argue that point. However, at the risk of being seen as an apologist for 'stupid'ity, let me point out that it's not quite a slam dunk. Here's the lede of the USA Today piece:
The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.
Short, punchy, a bit scary, and relatively precise. Compare that to the Times:
The National Security Agency has traced and analyzed large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping program that President Bush approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity, according to current and former government officials.
The Times relied on phrases like "large volumes" and "streams of domestic and international communications." The newspaper never said anything about "tens of millions." It was thus impossible to know how pervasive the program was, and difficult to gauge the relative significance of the story. It also meant that media organizations, who are eternally interested in stories that seem to have a direct impact on the average American, were less likely to embrace it. If you doubt the importance of a story's perceived appeal to an individual in how much play it gets, just look at how the CBS "Evening News" played the NSA story yesterday: "Does the government need to know who you've been talking to on the phone?," asked Bob Schieffer. "Then why is it collecting millions of our phone records?"

Just like the Times, Slate didn't quite have the story nailed down to the degree USA Today did. Yes, it trotted out the "millions" figure, but it was sourced to a single, anonymous source and buried beneath a lede concerning "officers from the Signal Security Agency, the predecessor to the National Security Agency, [visiting] an executive from International Telephone and Telegraph" fifty years ago. Harris' excellent piece is tied to the wonky subject of an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and the nut graf tells us that "this traffic analysis examines thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of individuals" – not tens of millions.

I'm not trying to excuse the fact that this story went largely ignored for so long, or the fact that the USA Today piece is being treated as an out-of-the-blue revelation. In many ways, the emailer quoted above is right. People in the media do need to take a closer look at stories like this, not wait for them to be placed in front of them like a tender piece of steak. (In this analogy, USA Today plays the part of the waiter.)

But before our righteous indignation reaches the boiling point, let's remember this was not simply the same-old same-old, nicely repackaged. (Though it was, indeed, nicely packaged, and that's far from irrelevant.) The USA Today piece was more solid than its predecessors, more specific and seemingly better sourced, and it zeroed in on the key issue in a way no one else did: "The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime."

This week's feeding frenzy has been lamentable. But while many journalists did need the facts made painfully clear to them, the reaction cannot be entirely traced to USA Today's pretty package.

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