USA Today Reporter a Democratic Donor; Phone Company Demands Retraction

Leslie Cauley, the USA Today reporter who last week “broke” the news that three major U.S. telecommunications companies were assisting the National Security Agency in building a database to more easily track any communications by potential terrorists, is listed as a donor to former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, according to a search of The Center for Responsive Politics Web site,

A search found a listing for "writer and journalist" Leslie Cauley, indicating she gave $2,000 to Gephardt on June 30, 2003, when Gephardt was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. And that seems not to be her only tie to Democratic politics (see Update below)

Cauley's link to a Democratic campaign seems likely to further cloud the credibility of her story. Two of the three phone companies Cauley fingered, BellSouth and Verizon, have since denied the accuracy of the May 11 USA Today story, and BellSouth yesterday went so far as to demand the newspaper “retract the false and unsubstantiated statements” made by Cauley in her piece.

There have also been questions about the timing of the story, which was given huge play on USA Today’s front-pages shortly before the former head of the National Security Agency, General Michael Hayden, was due to face confirmation hearings to be the next CIA director, and given the fact that many of the key points of the story were actually reported last December by the New York Times.

[UPDATE, 11:30am EDT: Leslie Cauley’s Democratic campaign contributions seem not to be her only tie to liberal politics. Before Cauley joined USA Today, she teamed up with former AT&T and Global Crossing executive Leo Hindery to write a book on business deals, “Biggest Game of All.” But Hindery is not just a businessman — he’s listed as a major donor to Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party, and was even mentioned by The Hill newspaper as a possible DNC chairman in late 2004.]

[The two were apparently close, at least at one point. According to a 2005 write-up in Broadcasting and Cable, “Cauley and Hindery developed a close relationship during their book project, giving her access to his insights and many documents from that period.” The magazine, however, notes that “their collaboration apparently ended very badly,” with Cauley trashing Hindery in a later book, End of the Line: The Rise and Fall of AT&T.]

[According to B&C: “She [Cauley] calls him a ‘carnival barker,’ ‘a junk-food addict with a waistline to match’ and, in a particularly cheap shot, a ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy makeover just screaming to happen.’”]

Friday’s USA Today carries BellSouth’s demand of a retraction on page 4A, below a more prominent story headlined “Senators challenge Hayden on surveillance,” with partial transcripts of General Hayden being asked yesterday about the claimed NSA database program.

According to today’s USA Today:

“BellSouth asked USA Today on Thursday to ‘retract the false and unsubstantiated statements’ about the company that it contends were in a May 11 story about a database of domestic calling records maintained by the National Security Agency.

In a letter to the newspaper's publisher, Craig Moon, the company noted that the story said BellSouth is ‘working under contract with the NSA’ to provide ‘phone call records of tens of millions of Americans’ that have been incorporated into the database.

‘No such proof was offered by your newspaper because no such contracts exist,’ stated the letter, portions of which were read by spokesman Jeff Battcher. ‘You have offered no proof that BellSouth provided massive calling data to the NSA as part of a warrantless program because it simply did not happen.’

Steve Anderson, a USA Today spokesman, said ‘We did receive the letter this afternoon. We are reviewing it, and we will be responding.’...

The paper also included this background that seemed designed to justify their earlier publication:

USA Today first contacted BellSouth more than five weeks ago. On the night before the story was published, the newspaper described the story in detail to BellSouth, and the company did not challenge the newspaper's account. The company's official response at that time: ‘BellSouth does not provide any confidential customer information to the NSA or any governmental agency without proper legal authority.’

Since the story broke, Cauley herself has made the rounds. The Washingtonian magazine’s Harry Jaffe wrote a gushing profile applauding her “victory for beat reporting.” He quoted Cauley as saying her USA Today “scoop” demonstrated the usefulness of unnamed sources:

“Like any reporter,” she says, “one thread leads to another leads to another” in the “messy process of reporting.”

Part of the messy process was clearing the use of anonymous sources, on which the story was based.

Says Cauley: “This further validates the use of confidential, unnamed sources. They have a real value in our business.”

With the phone companies demanding a retraction and her own Democratic connections now revealed, the “value” of her unnamed sources seems increasingly dubious. Could Leslie Cauley be on her way to becoming a print version of CBS’s disgraced Mary Mapes?

War on Terrorism Journalistic Issues