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Reporter: NSA collects lists of numbers Americans call

Lesley Cauley


CNN Access
National Security Agency (NSA)
BellSouth Corporation
Verizon Communications

(CNN) -- USA Today reported Thursday that the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting records of the phone calls of ordinary Americans.

AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth telephone companies began turning over records of tens of millions of their customers' phone calls to the National Security Agency program shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks, the paper reported.

CNN's Miles O'Brien spoke Thursday with Lesley Cauley, the USA Today reporter who broke the story.

O'BRIEN: First of all, this does not imply the NSA is listening to domestic phone calls you or I would make, correct?

CAULEY: That is correct, yes.

O'BRIEN: OK. So what exactly -- what kind of information are they gathering?

CAULEY: They are collecting what is known as call detail records. And this is simply the listing of the actual numbers dialed. Incoming and outgoing are being tracked. But, again, we're talking purely the calls being dialed. That does not include your name, street address, Social Security number, information of that sort.

O'BRIEN: Of course, that information, with the phone number, you can get that kind of stuff if you want to get it.

CAULEY: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: It's certainly -- it's very simple to do that. Anybody can do that on the Web. We're talking about AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, which are the biggies. So that includes literally tens of millions of Americans. What have you been able to glean is the NSA using and doing with this information?

CAULEY: The explanation put forth by NSA is simply that they are -- it is part of a counterterrorism campaign. No doubt, this is one of many tools in the arsenal to try to track down suspected terrorists, would-be terrorists, that sort of thing.

O'BRIEN: All right, let's interject right now with a statement from the NSA, just so we can get that in here. Here's what they're saying: "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. However, it is important to note the NSA takes its legal responsibilities seriously and operates within the law." If what you say is true in the piece, is that lawful, to do what they're doing?

CAULEY: That's -- that's the big question. It would be open to debate. No doubt, NSA and the Bush administration would argue it certainly is. ACLU and others on the civil libertarian side of the aisle, however, would probably have a different point of view.

O'BRIEN: All right, the amount of data here is truly staggering, and I'm sure that the NSA has some of the finest supercomputers on the planet. But what are they able to do when they put all those phone numbers and all of those records into the computer? What can they possibly learn?

CAULEY: Well, only the NSA knows that for sure and they are not saying. But certainly with this aggregated mass of data, they can slice and dice this a multitude of ways and you cross-check it with other databases, other information, they would have access to, which is considerable, and, again, secret. There's no telling. But that -- that is a question.

O'BRIEN: Do you know if there have been specific investigations or arrests, for that matter, that have been generated by this data?

CAULEY: I do not know for sure. I have not been able to determine that.

O'BRIEN: All right. And as far as we know, how long has this been going on?

CAULEY: Since at least -- since at least 2001, with the 9/11 attacks. Possibly the groundwork was laid prior to that. But certainly since 2001.

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