BellSouth, Verizon not involved in NSA phone record database

While the National Security Agency has collected a massive database of domestic telephone calls, BellSouth and Verizon do not appear to have participated in the program, according to a new USA TODAY report Friday.

The newspaper reported on May 11 that the NSA had collected a database of telephone calls originating and terminating within the U.S. from major telephone companies, including AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth. While AT&T refused to confirm or deny participation in the program, citing national security concerns, Verizon and BellSouth both denied participating, and BellSouth had demanded a retraction from USA TODAY.

The records collected under the program include the telephone number placing the call, the telephone number receiving the call, the time the call was placed, and the duration of the call.

On Friday, USA TODAY reported that it could not confirm that either Verizon or BellSouth contracted with NSA to provide telephone call records to the agency. However, it said that 19 lawmakers confirmed the existence of the program, and several of those confirmed the participation of AT&T in the program.

AT&T, asked to comment, issued a written statement Thursday. “The U.S. Department of Justice has stated that AT&T may neither confirm nor deny AT&T’s participation in the alleged NSA program because doing so would cause ‘exceptionally grave harm to national security’ and would violate both civil and criminal statutes,” it said. “Under these circumstances, AT&T is not able to respond to such allegations.” — USA TODAY

“As we have stated numerous times, the NSA never contacted BellSouth, and we never supplied customer calling records to the NSA,” said BellSouth spokesman Jeff Batcher. “In addition, we do not and have never had a contract with the NSA.”

Lawmakers confirmed that BellSouth did not participate in the program, but that MCI, which was purchased by Verizon earlier this year, did participate.

Verizon’s denial of participation did not extend to MCI.

“It was not cross-city calls. It was not mom-and-pop calls,” said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who receives briefings as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee. “It was long-distance. It was targeted on (geographic) areas of interest, places to which calls were believed to have come from al-Qaeda affiliates and from which calls were made to al-Qaeda affiliates.” — Ibid.

So it appears that the program collects long distance (and presumably international) calls made through AT&T and MCI long distance networks, rather than every call made through local telephone companies. It would seem your pizza-buying habits are safe — for now.

[Full disclosure: I worked for MCI through July 2005, and while I was aware that a program like this was possible and how to implement it, I was not aware of its existence during my employment there.]