Hyping USA Today's "Big Brother" Bombshell: TV Jumps on Stale NSA Database Story

Seismic! Shocking! Startling! A bombshell!! That’s how the ABC, CBS and NBC morning shows described a front-page story in today’s (Thursday’s) USA Today that breathlessly touted how “NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls.” Like the TV coverage, USA Today’s story insinuated that the existence of the database was a major violation of Americans’ privacy rights and evidence that the President was lying last December when he described the NSA’s eavesdropping on suspected terrorist communications as limited and targeted.

Today’s article does not allege that any calls are listened in on. Indeed, as USA Today describes it, the program seems like a thoroughly innocuous database of the same information that appears on your phone bill, but with your name, address and other personal information removed. Given that another government agency — the IRS — maintains information on American citizens’ employment, banking, investments, mortgages, charitable contributions and even any declared medical expenses, this hardly seems like a major assault on personal liberty.

And for all of the hype, there may not even be much “news” here. Last December 24, a few days after they spilled the beans about the NSA terrorist surveillance program, New York Times reporters Eric Lichtblau and James Risen disclosed how U.S. phone companies were helping the NSA by giving them “access to streams of domestic and international communications.”

I've included a longer excerpt from December's Times story, plus a long piece from today's USA Today item, but first here’s some of this morning’s hype, as collected by MRC analysts Geoff Dickens, Brian Boyd and Mike Rule.

# ABC’s Good Morning America’s was the most over-the-top, as co-host Diane Sawyer breathlessly began the program: “New this morning: NSA bombshell. A new report that the government is secretly tracking your phone calls, seeking information on every call made in the U.S. The war on terror versus your privacy.”

In her story, reporter Jessica Yellin blurred the collection of phone numbers with actual eavesdropping: “The story in today's USA Today reveals another secret piece of the President's domestic spying program. It says that in addition to those warrantless wiretaps that have stirred so much controversy, according to the paper the government has also been collecting information on every phone call placed in the United States. It's an issue that could stir yet more trouble for the White House.

"It's the second major revelation about domestic surveillance. This time not wiretapping some calls but collecting the phone records of Americans and documenting every call we make. USA Today reports three of the nation's largest phone companies: AT&T, Verizon and Bell South have been turning over detailed call histories of all their customers ever since 9/11, helping the NSA compile what they hope will be the largest database ever assembled in the world. And it's all without a court warrant.”

Sawyer then interviewed Leslie Cauley, the USA Today reporter, with a "Big Brother: Why is NSA Tracking Your Calls?" headline on screen for much of the interview: “We want to turn now to the reporter who broke this story in USA Today. She is Leslie Cauley and joining us this morning from Washington. Good to have you with us, Leslie. Let me get this straight. What are the odds that every person watching this show this morning has had the records of their phone calls turned over to the government?”

“It's a very good bet,” Cauley replied. “The short answer is the chances are that your cell phone calls as well as your home phone calls have been tracked."

"Cell phones, too!” Sawyer exclaimed. Later, after Cauley pointed out that personal data such as names and address are not collected, Sawyer asked: “Question about legalities there. Any chance that this information could be passed on to other government agencies, the FBI, CIA?"

Cauley asserted: "A high likelihood that in fact is what's going on right now."

Sawyer: "Well, as we said a seismic story this morning and thanks for joining us, Leslie. And it's certainly going to be part of the hearings when the new nominee for the head of the CIA appears because he's also the head of the NSA right now."

# NBC’s Today: With a graphic of “Big Brother?” on screen, co-host Matt Lauer announced at the top of the program: “Good morning, does the government have your number? This morning a shocking new report that the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone records of tens of millions of Americans?”

A few minutes later, Katie Couric explained the hype: “USA Today is breaking the story this morning, reporting that the NSA has been secretly given records from three top phone companies since 9/11. They’re reportedly trying to see if there’s any calling patterns or there are any calling patterns that might indicate some kind of terrorist plot.”

Lauer suggested a “firestorm” would ensue: “And according to the paper the NSA isn’t actually listening to the calls but this is sure to set off a real firestorm in Washington today.” The full story by NBC’s Lisa Myers was carefully couched: “This is very different but in, in that case you were talking about phone calls which are monitored. This is apparently just the collection of the information about the call, the phone numbers and those numbers are analyzed by a computer so it's a little bit different in that it's not actual wiretapping.”

# CBS Early Show. Co-host Hannah Storm linked the database with eavesdropping: “Good morning, I'm Hannah Storm. A stunning report. The National Security Agency has collected the phone records of tens of millions of ordinary Americans as part of its program to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists.

Her co-host Julie Chen claimed Americans were “under the scrutiny” of the NSA: “First we want to get right to our top story this morning, a startling new report that millions of Americans are under the scrutiny of the National Security Agency.”

Like NBC’s Myers, White House reporter Bill Plante also said that this particular program did not involve listening to people’s calls, but he also suggested that the news would hurt CIA nominee Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA:

“This morning 'USA Today' reports that the National Security Agency has secretly collected the domestic phone records of tens of millions of Americans. Sources say three phone companies, AT&T, Verizon and Bell South provided the data. It details the personal and business calls of ordinary Americans, most of them under no suspicion of crime or terrorism. The NSA program reportedly does not involve recording or listening to conversations, only collecting data about them. But even though that's not actually listening or eavesdropping to conversations, it is still going to be ammunition for the people who don't think that General Hayden should be running the CIA”

Now to the USA Today story itself, which strained to paint the data collection as sinister. For a newspaper known for running relatively brief items, the NSA story was enormous: a large, two-line headline on the front page, with two columns of text wrapping around a graphic of phone company logos and a summary quote. Inside, readers were treated to another full page of coverage, including quotes from Hayden and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez from early in the year talking about the NSA’s eavesdropping operation, not the database.

Excerpts of the story:
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 program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

"It's the largest database ever assembled in the world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, this person added.

For the customers of these companies, it means that the government has detailed records of calls they made — across town or across the country — to family members, co-workers, business contacts and others.

The three telecommunications companies are working under contract with the NSA, which launched the program in 2001 shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the sources said. The program is aimed at identifying and tracking suspected terrorists, they said.

The sources would talk only under a guarantee of anonymity because the NSA program is secret....

The NSA's domestic program, as described by sources, is far more expansive than what the White House has acknowledged. Last year, Bush said he had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop — without warrants — on international calls and international e-mails of people suspected of having links to terrorists when one party to the communication is in the USA. Warrants have also not been used in the NSA's efforts to create a national call database.

In defending the previously disclosed program, Bush insisted that the NSA was focused exclusively on international calls. "In other words," Bush explained, "one end of the communication must be outside the United States."

As a result, domestic call records — those of calls that originate and terminate within U.S. borders — were believed to be private.

Sources, however, say that is not the case. With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans. Customers' names, street addresses and other personal information are not being handed over as part of NSA's domestic program, the sources said. But the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information.

Don Weber, a senior spokesman for the NSA, declined to discuss the agency's operations. "Given the nature of the work we do, it would be irresponsible to comment on actual or alleged operational issues; therefore, we have no information to provide," he said. "However, it is important to note that NSA takes its legal responsibilities seriously and operates within the law."
But is this even news? Here’s an excerpt from Lichtblau and Risen’s December 24, 2005 New York Times story on the NSA, which seemed to reveal the same “stunning” “seismic” information:
As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic surveillance without warrants, the N.S.A. has gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications, the officials said....

What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation.

The current and former government officials who discussed the program were granted anonymity because it remains classified....

Back then, every network took note of the New York Times story and portrayed it much as they are today’s USA Today story, as a huge infringement on individuals’ civil liberties. As NBC’s John Seigenthaler announced at the top of the December 24 Nightly News:

“There is important news from Washington tonight. According to today's New York Times, the National Security Agency's domestic spying program is much more widespread than first reported. NBC's Rosiland Jordan has the story."

Jordan began her story: “Security experts call it data mining, looking for a needle in a massive electronic haystack. In this case, suspicious patterns of terrorist activity lurking in millions of phone calls and e-mails. According to today's New York Times, the National Security Agency used its computers to gather and analyze information, and not all of it came from suspected terrorists. What's more, the Times says several unnamed US telecommunications companies cooperated with the NSA, making it easy for the agency to gain access to that data.”
Even though it’s largely been reported before, today’s USA Today “bombshell” seems too good for the Bush-bashing networks to ignore.
War on Terrorism New York Times USA Today Today Good Morning America Early Show