The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.
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.
Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, nominated Monday by President Bush to become the director of the
CIA, headed the NSA from March 1999 to April 2005. In that post, Hayden would have overseen the agency's domestic call-tracking program. Hayden declined to comment about the program.
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.