Government Monitoring About 200 Million Americans' Calls

ByABC News via logo

May 11, 2006 — -- As controversy continues to swirl around the National Security Agency program that taps the phones of suspected terrorists within the United States, a USA Today story reveals another piece of the president's NSA spying program.

Addressing the issue this afternoon, President Bush did not confirm or deny the report and said the intelligence operations he's authorized are "lawful" and "appropriate."

The newspaper says that the spy agency has been collecting information on every phone call made in this country.

"Chances are that your cell phone calls, as well as your home phone calls, have been tracked," said Leslie Cauley, the reporter who broke the story. She said there was a "high likelihood" that this information was being passed on to the FBI and CIA.

Bush said any intelligence activities specifically target terrorists. "Our intelligence activities strictly target al Qaeda and their known affiliates," Bush said. "We are not mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans."

The paper reports that three of the nation's largest phone companies -- AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth -- have been turning over detailed call histories of all their customers since Sept. 11, 2001, to help the NSA compile what it hopes will be "the largest database ever assembled in the world."

About 200 million people have had their call records monitored, Cauley said. This means the NSA keeps track of the outgoing and incoming calls, but not the callers' Social Security numbers or addresses.

"This is referred to as data mining. They slice and dice these numbers a thousand different ways," Cauley said. "They analyze patterns. If you're NSA, you look for suspicious patterns."

In all their comments about the eavesdropping program, U.S. officials never revealed that they were involved in this massive collection of telephone data. Instead the president has described the NSA surveillance program this way: "The program applies only to international communications. In other words, one end of the communication must be outside the United States."

The NSA responded to the report with a statement.

"Given the nature of the work we do, it would be irresponsible to comment. Therefore, we have no information to provide," the statement read. "However, it is important to note that the NSA takes its legal responsibility seriously and operates within the law."

Gen. Michael Hayden, the president's pick for the next CIA director, has defended the eavesdropping program, saying it goes after al Qaeda operatives.

"This is targeted and focused," Hayden said. "This is not about intercepting conversations between people in the United States."

Hayden is likely to be grilled on the NSA surveillance programs during his confirmation hearings next week.

According to USA Today, this massive NSA data collection program is used to analyze calling patterns that may be helpful in tracking down terrorists. This part of the spy program does not include listening to or recording Americans' conversations. The data NSA gathers are so private that phone companies would normally face steep fines for divulging the information.

According to USA Today, one phone company, Qwest, has refused to turn over its records, citing legal concerns. So far, the White House has not responded to this report.

In the past, it has told ABC News that the NSA's terrorist surveillance program is within the law, and is essential to keeping Americans safe.

"Qwest had concerns about the legality about handing over customer information without having court warrants," Cauley said. "It wasn't that they wanted to participate."

This story was originally reported by ABC News' Jessica Yellin