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NSA Phone Database Story Starting to Fall Apart

The USA Today story about the administration tracking every phone call in the country looks like it is crumbling faster than a Corps of Engineers built levee. First, Bellsouth issued a statement and denied they helped the NSA - or where even asked:

BellSouth denies it gave NSA call data

MAY. 16 9:06 A.M. ET BellSouth says it has no evidence it was contacted by a U.S. spy agency or gave the government access to any of its customers' phone call records, disputing a published report that sparked a national debate on federal surveillance tactics.

The regional Bell, which offers telecommunication services in nine Southeastern states, said Monday it had conducted a "thorough review" and established that it had not given the National Security Agency customer call records.

A report Thursday by USA Today identified BellSouth Corp., along with AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., as companies that had complied with an NSA request for tens of millions of customer phone records after the 2001 terror attacks. Experts said the agency was likely seeking to detect calling patterns in the mountain of data.

"Based on our review to date, we have confirmed no such contract exists and we have not provided bulk customer calling records to the NSA," the company said in a statement.

BellSouth spokesman Jeff Battcher said in a telephone interview, "we cannot find anyone within BellSouth who has ever been approached by the NSA."

The USA Today report, which quoted anonymous sources with direct knowledge of the program, followed earlier revelations of wiretapping on overseas calls without a court order and sparked a renewed national debate over government intrusion into Americans' civil liberties in the fight against terrorism.

Now Verizon has said in no uncertain terms that they didn't give the NSA call data and that they were never even asked. Don't just skim it, it's pretty forceful.

One of the most glaring and repeated falsehoods in the media reporting is the assertion that, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Verizon was approached by NSA and entered into an arrangement to provide the NSA with data from its customers' domestic calls.

This is false. From the time of the 9/11 attacks until just four months ago, Verizon had three major businesses - its wireline phone business, its wireless company and its directory publishing business. It also had its own Internet Service Provider and long-distance businesses. Contrary to the media reports, Verizon was not asked by NSA to provide, nor did Verizon provide, customer phone records from any of these businesses, or any call data from those records. None of these companies - wireless or wireline - provided customer records or call data.

Another error is the claim that data on local calls is being turned over to NSA and that simple "calls across town" are being "tracked." In fact, phone companies do not even make records of local calls in most cases because the vast majority of customers are not billed per call for local calls. In any event, the claim is just wrong. As stated above, Verizon's wireless and wireline companies did not provide to NSA customer records or call data, local or otherwise.

There not a lot of ambiguity in that statement. AT&T also issued a statement that was not as categorical but still threw cold water on the story.

It is interesting to note that the phone companies are not only denying that they gave over the data but they are making it clear they were never asked. The phone companies have to play both sides of the fence on this one. If they gave out customer information, a whole ton of customers will be highly annoyed -and sue them- but if they say they refused to give the data it will look like they are refusing to help stop terrorists. That's why they are being so clear about the fact they where never even asked.

We'll have to watch over the next few days but this is starting to look like another Rathergate style hatchet job that will fall apart soon enough. You can read more from Sean Hackbarth at the American Mind who has a mini roundup thing going.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference NSA Phone Database Story Starting to Fall Apart:

» Unpartisan.com Political News and Blog Aggregator linked with Verizon Denies NSA Sought Call Data

» Conservative Outpost linked with Daily Summary

» The Thunder Run linked with Web Reconnaissance for 05/17/2006

» Outside The Beltway | OTB linked with NSA Program: More Questions than Answers

» Murdoc Online linked with But was it "breached" or "overtopped"?

» Murdoc Online linked with The "3D Rule": Deny Deny Deny

Comments (37)

Bellsouth and Verizon shoul... (Below threshold)

Bellsouth and Verizon should deny that they gave telephone records. They are businesses who stand to take a huge financial hit. I don't think their comments reassure the faith of those who feel violated by our current regime's intrusiveness. The administration at this point is also trying to grasp at any shred of credibility they may have left. Which frankly is very very little. Big Business and Big Administration says "We didn't do it". It all sounds like crap to me.

Paul, I think you are overr... (Below threshold)

Paul, I think you are overreacting to the story. Remember the second paragraph of the original USA Today story? 'This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations.' Remember that if you talk to any telephone company folks. Most are laughing about this. It's just too paranoid of a story to take seriously. I have worked for Bellsouth. Bellsouth probably generates, on average, 12 BILLION call records. Per MONTH. I feel sure that Verizon and SBC (AT&T) do at least that, maybe more. The biggest honking set of Cray computors running on premium unleaded couldn't make sense of that - even if the NSA had the records.
We are getting too far away from the real need for what the NSA program is for - catching Al Qaeda before they catch us. The legal part of this program is just one tool in the arsenal to use. And I don't want to lose focus on what's working. So far, we haven't had another 9/11. Getting complacent is easier than getting more vigilant. I want them to connect the dots. If wiretaps help with this war, do it.

The phone companies say the... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:

The phone companies say they were not approached or ask by the NSA for their phone data. They also say then did not give such data to the NSA. Of course, the NSA could have used a front company to obtain the data for a fee. The question to ask the phone companies is "have you given, provided, licensed or sold any phone data to any person, company, government or government agency?" Anything less leaves the question open.

My, my. Yet another phony ... (Below threshold)

My, my. Yet another phony scandal that the MSM has been promoting as part of its "hurt Bush any way we can" agenda falls apart. I can just hear the fax machines in the NY Times and the DNC whirring furiously even now trying to find the next scandal. Get ready. It should be here in about a week.

So, why is there so little ... (Below threshold)

So, why is there so little interest, thus far anyway, in asking the journos who filed these stories to back up their reporting with some confirmable facts? Where are the oh-so-brave editors who supposedly asserted their skills at testing the veracity of their reporters' claims? As for the rest of us, maybe we should be asking ourselves 'what has Mary Mapes has been up to lately?'

heh- tblubrd did say:... (Below threshold)

heh- tblubrd did say:

Paul, I think you are overreacting to the story. Remember the second paragraph of the original USA Today story? 'This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations.'


Thanks tblubrd. At least one person on everything I post doensn't actually read the post then makes a jackass out of himself.

Glad you got there early to avoid the crowd.

Mac that's not a bad point ... (Below threshold)

Mac that's not a bad point but I think the Verizon statement is pretty blunt. YMMV

[People who can't read (or ... (Below threshold)

[People who can't read (or use google) get deleted. -paul]

Elaine ... Maybe you should... (Below threshold)
Martin A. Knight:

Elaine ... Maybe you should concentrate on thinking and seeking verifiable fact as opposed to just "feeling" ...

I mean, you claim to "feel violated". Why?

Has anything happened to you or anyone you know that would lead you to believe that any of America's Intelligence agencies care any more about you and yours than they did, let's say, ten years ago?

What makes you think, anyone at the CIA, DIA, NSA, NRO, FBI, etc. is in any way interested in you as a target?

So far, what we have is a bunch of reporters citing anonymous sources (by definition, people of doubtful veracity) saying that the Bush Administration is monitoring/torturing/imprisoning innocent Americans.

So far, none of these stories are confirmable. And of course, the Right is demanding proof that these stories are true (prove a positive - possible), while the Left is demanding proof that these stories are false (prove a negative - impossible).

No wonder you're walking around feeling "violated" ...

Mac has a very valid point.... (Below threshold)

Mac has a very valid point. The records may have been obtained without the phone companies knowing who the ultimate customer was. In which case, all those who are pissing and moaning about government intrusion into their privacy should turn their anger onto the phone companies who so willing sold the records to whoever was willing to write a check.

That being said, I can see this being yet another piece of a major leak investigation. First, we had secret prisons in Europe that no one can find and now we have a program that may not have existed. In the mean time, the FBI now knows of two leak sources for stories they may have planted in the intelligence community. If this is a sting, it's brilliant.

Elaine, you have been viola... (Below threshold)

Elaine, you have been violated. It was don't by those who seek to defame and distract this President from doing what he was elected to do. Ask yourself, or have someone ask you, why is it that when democrats wiretap, it is for national security. When Republicans do it, it is an intrusion into our privacy? Sometimes, the first liar wins. The democrats were and are the first and only liars. Why?

Hmm, the left --- who we KN... (Below threshold)

Hmm, the left --- who we KNOW hates "lying" --- isn't too upset over this.

Paul,As unpleasant... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:


As unpleasant as it may be, you got to think like a lawyer when reading Verizon's statement.

As stated above, Verizon's wireless and wireline companies did not provide to NSA customer records or call data, local or otherwise.

With this paragraph Verizon limits it's claim to NSA even though paragraphs above this one were less specific. Version could have provided customer records or call data to "Al-Qaeda Marketing, Inc." without knowing that company is a front for NSA. What we need to know is if Verizon and other phone companies provided call data to anyone. If so, then the NSA likely got their hands on it.

Mac,They sell info t... (Below threshold)

They sell info to marketing agencies all of the time. Further, the info that marketing agencies get is way more detailed than what NSA used.

Mac, I'm not exactly disagr... (Below threshold)

Mac, I'm not exactly disagreeing.

My point is that we can go too far with the "well deny this" game. In effect you want to cross examine a press release. OK but on what grounds?

So far we have some questionable journalism based on (yet another) anaMoose source. - Why not get Bush to tell us when he quit beating Laura?

I think before we put people on the rack we should at least make sure we have reason.

(reminder, I'm very opposed to this program -if it exists- but I think the word parsing is a bit much at this snapshot in time.)

How much you want to bet th... (Below threshold)

How much you want to bet that even if this story is mostly debunked, it still goes up for a Pulitzer?

Still curious why you haven... (Below threshold)

Still curious why you haven't provided or linked to the any quotes from AT&T which support your contention that AT&T is denying involvement, Paul.

Paul answers the nitwit:

Becasue I had more to do in my life than teach you how to use google.

The company said it "does not allow wiretapping without a court order nor has it otherwise given customer information to law enforcement authorities or government agencies without legal authorization."

Now please... Get a few fact or blow. Google has a very friendly user interface. Try it, you might like it. -Paul

"First, Bellsouth issued a ... (Below threshold)

"First, Bellsouth issued a statement and denied they helped the NSA - or where even asked:"

You haven't been keeping up, have you Paul?


See 15 U.S.C. 78m(b)(3)(A)

Don't worry, I'll be here for corrections all week.

Still curious why ... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:
Still curious why you haven't provided or linked to the any quotes from AT&T which support your contention that AT&T is denying involvement, Paul.

Maybe Paul is busy, so here's a link to a story in the Chicago Tribune. The following part of the story is a quote from AT&T.

AT&T said Tusday that it "does not allow wiretapping without a court order nor has it otherwise given customer information to law enforcement authorities or government agencies without legal authorization."

This took about 30 seconds to find on Google.

"Don't worry, I'll be here ... (Below threshold)

"Don't worry, I'll be here for corrections all week."

It won't take me all week to correct you if you make a point.... HUH? (No I didn't read the link and try to read your mind) Say it or don't.

Most of this data, A-number... (Below threshold)

Most of this data, A-number (call"ing"), B-number (call"ed"), subscriber features, etc. can be obtained from the SS7 subnetwork - the signaling portion of the network where the phone switches 'talk' to each other. Common protocols here in the US are IS-41 and MAP for GSM. They are usually transported over X.25 links and some TCP/IP.

Even if the operators that have been questioned do not hand over the data to the NSA, it can be snooped from the signaling network with similar results. By the way, these operators questioned for the most part, do not own these transport networks for signaling. The NSA will get it - regardless of whether or not operator x, y or z "agrees" to give them this data.

snowballs being a networkin... (Below threshold)

snowballs being a networking geek, I get 99% of what you are saying but if you wanted to say that again with more words, I'd like to read it. Especially the last 2-3 sentences.


Sorry Paul - I figured you ... (Below threshold)

Sorry Paul - I figured you would read it. It does take time and it is in legalese.

Basically, it's a Presidential Memorandum allowing companies to lie if it's in the interest of national security.

Good Bye Lee. You'... (Below threshold)

Good Bye Lee.

You're an idiot.

Well Paul,There ar... (Below threshold)

Well Paul,

There are essentially two logical networks used when I make a phone call from my home phone to my Mom's cell phone across the country. There are voice circuits and there are signaling circuits dedicated to the phone switches being able to perform lookups between each other. Think about it - there first has to be a lookup to the home network to find out where the mobile phone is - maybe in Miami instead of Raleigh. Then, the signaling network has to assign a voice path, or tell the originating switch to send a busy signal back to me, all circuits busy message, sub out of area, or whatever.

So these are huge companies, but here in the U.S., they couldn't possible own both of these logical networks. Nor does the Government (as in many, many other countries). What does that mean - well, there may be 7,8 hell, even 12 or more companies' equipment that my phone call may traverse getting from one end of the country to the other. These big operators lease various portions of signaling, voice and IP transport networks from lots of different companies. There may be a mom & pop company that simply provides signaling trunks from Denver to Indianapolis for example - it's also possible, but not likely in most cases that this mom & pop company owns the voice trunks too. From what I know, there are only a handful of SS7 provider companies here in the U.S. Maybe 15 or less - I don't know really, but probably not more than that.

So, just as a TCP/IP path, these circuits can be monitored, or snooped for any and all messages coming across the network. We're talking about very small amounts of data with a signaling message, not jpegs or whatever. I'm not sure of the byte count, but it's probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 bytes to 1 or 2 Kb. Very small really.

What this NSA program appears to be targeting is the data coming across the signaling network - mainly the A and B numbers. At first, I was under the impression that they were doing this by obtaining the billing files (which they still might be) which contain the originating and terminating numbers among other things, but after thinking about it a bit more and the resistance that I'm reading about from operators such as Quest, I've now changed my tune as to how they may be doing this.

I don't know first hand - but I'd say that it could be done in this way too.

I believe Paul's characteri... (Below threshold)

I believe Paul's characterization that "they have not been asked" was intended to refer to the phone companies generally. ATT's statement is certainly more equivocal than the others'.

It is clear, though, that several of the companies NAMED in the USAT story are in fact denying it. This also has implications for the Risen story in the NYT in December - which included all the info except company names.

Now, I fully concede to the skeptics that it is entirely possible the reports are true anyway. However, at this point, they rely on unnamed sources and are unverified. Now, it is also quite possible NSA could get the data without ever asking the telecoms for it - BUT that is NOT what the two fMSM stories said happened. If they are wrong about that, and rely upon anonymous sources, why believe them?

For all we KNOW, Risen and USAT's source could have been a space monkey from the planet QXRVVO.

In any event, isn't it interesting that the rehashing of this story from six months ago is suddenly big news?

Lee,I didn't quote... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:


I didn't quote AT&T's entire statement in support of Paul's comment. However, I did establish that AT&T did issue a statement on Tuesday and there's likely more than what I found in the Chicago Tribune story. I think that puts the ball in your court to link to the full AT&T statement to support your argument.

>I believe Paul's character... (Below threshold)

>I believe Paul's characterization that "they have not been asked" was intended to refer to the phone companies generally.

Of course I was.

(Actually I was thinkning of BS and V when I wrote it. They have made "real" statemets and AT&T just sorta muddered.)

Lee is being a moron so I pulled his plug.

Long time WB readers know I used to try to get these people to think. The idiot posters after Katrina convinced me it was pointless.

They are idiots and will wear their idiocy on their sleeve.... But I don't have to deal with them. Now I tell them good bye.

I don't have time for the noise.

interestng jp2, I'll read a... (Below threshold)

interestng jp2, I'll read and ponder it in a few hours.

Sorry for not reading the link then reading your mind... just busy.


Mac, just ignore the troll.... (Below threshold)

Mac, just ignore the troll. thanks


Sorry Paul - I took it from... (Below threshold)
Tom Lefebvre:

Sorry Paul - I took it from your first story that your were all about no NSA surveillance at all. At least I see that you agree the story seems bogus from USA Today. I'm not in favor of a huge database of records owned by the NSA - but then I don't think they have anything to hold a record that big. Nor do they have a right to. But the surveillance of overseas suspects calls in a database is probably quite manageable.
CALEA is the only tool that any government enforcement agency - or the NSA - can use for interception. There are no mechanisms in the telecommunications industry for "fowarding" 12 billion call records a month through a CALEA interface - they don't exist.
Yes, the story is falling apart.

Lee,I'm sure it's ... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:


I'm sure it's frustrating to have posts deleted, but you're not being completely honest yourself. I saw the last post of yours before it was deleted and you got the AT&T quote from my post. I can tell because the "AT&T said Tuesday that it" intro was what I wrote and what you copied. That phrase was outside the quote marks and was not in the AT&T statement nor in the story I linked to. As I pointed out before, the story I linked did not quote AT&T's enter statement. Without you providing a link to that full statement your argument has no merit.

Also, there's a big difference between making a point and trying to discredit someone based on incomplete information, or language that can honestly be interpreted different ways. I think anyone who still cares has gotten your point. I'm moving on, and I recommend you do the same. Either that or you're going to prove Paul right about the troll thing.

Lee,I will say thi... (Below threshold)


I will say this only one time. I said:

"AT&T also issued a statement that was not as categorical but still threw cold water on the story."

That was based on their statement that both Mac and I gave you. -- A statement you could have googled at any time.

It was an accurate description of thier statement. You're being a jackass and pretending it is not.

You're done. Don't make me bother ban your IP. Just go.

Mac Lorry - we can't go bac... (Below threshold)

Mac Lorry - we can't go back and read the comment I wrote, now can we? --

The real problem is that I'm a cross dresser who is in love with his mother. I should probably get therapy but instead I spam this blog.

Thanks Snowballs. ... (Below threshold)

Thanks Snowballs.

Sorry for the slow reply. Everytime I have 2 minutes, I saw some idiot I had to delete so it took me a while to read your post.

I knew that the switching network was not the same as the voice but I just assumed the big telcos owned/ran them.

You gave me plenty of google food which is always a good thing.



LeeI asked nice.</... (Below threshold)


I asked nice.

Mac Lorry - we can't go bac... (Below threshold)

Mac Lorry - we can't go back and read the comment I wrote, now can we? --

I'm just a sweet transvestite.






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