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Report: NSA Collecting Domestic Phone Records

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

First, your phone records: who you called, how often and when are probably in the hands of the National Security Agency. The newspaper USA Today broke the story. It says the NSA had the cooperation of major American phone companies: AT&T, Verizon and Bell South. Here's what President Bush had to say about the story.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans. Our efforts are focused on links to al-Qaida and their known affiliates.

BRAND: USA Today reporter Leslie Cauley wrote the story. I spoke with her earlier and asked her what the NSA collected.

Ms. LESLIE CAULEY (USA Today Reporter): Numbers, lots and lots of numbers, billions of them of call records, of millions of Americans. These would be the actual numbers dialed. So it would be your -- on a monthly basis in your home phone you make calls out to all sorts of places. Those numbers don't show up in your phone bill, but they are recorded by the phone company. The phone company knows where you call. Those detailed records are the ones that are being handed over.

BRAND: And when you say your phone number, are you literally saying your phone number? In other words, everyone listening to this program, everyone in America has had their phone number collected and information given over to the NSA?

Ms. CAULEY: Well, potentially, yes.

BRAND: I wonder if you could take us back to how this program first started. The NSA went to these phone companies and said, what, essentially: you must hand over these phone records, or please hand over these records, or we'll pay you handsomely for these phone records?

Ms. CAULEY: Well, the NSA is not in a position to compel or force the phone companies to do this. But my understanding is that right after 9/11, the agency representatives went around to the phone companies and made this pitch, where, again, in the days after 9/11 we need to help to help fight terrorism. These call detail records could be very useful as a tool for us. And that was the pitch, this urgent plea to the telecom companies.

This was voluntary. And I would also point out that telecommunications companies in this country, for many years we had one phone monopoly, the old AT&T, Ma Bell. And this company has a long legacy of being very supportive of the federal government, particularly when it comes to matters of national security. And the companies do try to step up and assist where they feel they can be helpful.

BRAND: You report that all the major telecommunications companies participated, with the exception of Qwest Communications based in Denver?

Ms. CAULEY: Yes.

BRAND: That would exclude how many people from that data?

Ms. CAULEY: Qwest serves 14 million people in 14 states.

BRAND: And why did Qwest refused to participate?

Ms. CAULEY: Qwest had questions on the legal authority for them to do this. There's very stiff fines for companies that hand over private calling data improperly, up to $130,000 per day, per violation, up to over $1 million per violation. And so given that Qwest is being asked to hand over millions of call records, those fines in the aggregate could've been quite substantial. And so they wanted to have court warrants, or have something on paper. They did not get that and therefore they did not participate.

BRAND: And that didn't seem to bother the other companies? They weren't worried about the financial implications?

Ms. CAULEY: They had a different legal interpretation, clearly, as did or does the NSA and Bush Administration. Sometimes legal interpretations is, you know, it's in the eye of the beholder.

BRAND: So what do they possibly hope to gain from collecting these billions of numbers?

Ms. CAULEY: Well, as I understand it, they would simply use them as a tool, one of many tools at disposal of the NSA to try to smoke out or track suspected terrorists. So the theory goes if you know individuals who are engaged in these activities, you could figure out who they're talking to, and therefore track down the community that would be engaged in these sorts of activities.

BRAND: And could this information be handed over to other agencies? Let's say the Drug Enforcement Administration?

Ms. CAULEY: In all likelihood it is. The NSA, this is what they do. They provide information and analysis to the other intelligence agencies: FBI, CIA, DEA. The question is how many other agencies have access to it and how is it being used? And that's not clear.

BRAND: Leslie Cauley, thank you very much.

Ms. CAULEY: You're most welcome. Thanks for having me on.

BRAND: Leslie Cauley is a reporter with USA Today. Her story on the NSA secretly collecting the phone call records of most Americans is in today's USA Today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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