In a note to readers on Friday, USA Today backed off an assertion that BellSouth and Verizon had contracted to provide telephone calling records to the National Security Agency (NSA).
The note referred to an article published on May 11 that said the two companies and AT&T had provided such records, without warrants, for a database the security agency was compiling to detect terrorist activity.
BellSouth and Verizon have since denied participation in such a program. AT&T has declined to comment on the matter.
In an article that accompanied its note to readers, USA Today said 19 members of Congress briefed on the program had affirmed that the security agency built a database of Americans' domestic calls, including length of calls and numbers dialed.
Congressional officials said on Friday that they could not confirm details of that account, but a Democratic aide said Democrats would press for more details of the security agency's domestic wiretapping and call-logging at a hearing on July 19.
The USA Today report in May intensified debate over whether the battle against terrorism was compromising individual liberties and privacy and how. Telecommunications law requires a court order to obtain calling records, but there is disagreement about whether exceptions may be made when the government cites national security considerations.
"Based on its reporting after the May 11 article, USA Today has now concluded that while the NSA has built a massive domestic calls record database involving the domestic call records of telecommunications companies, the newspaper cannot confirm that BellSouth or Verizon contracted with the NSA to provide bulk calling records to that database," the newspaper wrote in its note to readers.
Records turned over by carriers might be only one of several sources for such a database. The New York Times reported in December that the security agency had gained backdoor access to streams of domestic and international phone and e-mail traffic with the cooperation of telecommunications companies.
The USA Today article on May 11, written by Leslie Cauley, a longtime telecommunications reporter, was based on interviews with unidentified sources said to have had knowledge of the arrangement.
Steven Anderson, a spokesman for USA Today, said on Friday that the newspaper had one of the strictest policies in the industry regarding the use of unidentified sources, and "we have no plans to change our existing policy."
Nor, Anderson said, did the paper anticipate any action regarding any staff members involved in the article.
"At the heart of our report is the fact that the NSA is collecting phone call records of Americans, reaching into homes and businesses, and there have been no denials that the database exists," he said.
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