News & Politics

USA Today Phone Spying Scoop Has Post and Times Scrambling

It isn’t every day that lead stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times credit a scoop by USA Today in the third paragraph. Friday’s editions might be a first.

Both the Post and the Times based their top stories of the day on Thursday’s scoop by USA Today telecom reporter Leslie Cauley, who reported that the government has been secretly collecting phone records of millions of Americans in its efforts to deter terrorist attacks.

Cauley’s story hit newsstands early Thursday. By that afternoon senators were calling for hearings; President Bush was offering denials.

Many news operations have been tracking the National Security Agency’s increased eavesdropping on communications within the United States. The Times broke the story of the expanded electronic spying last year. National Journal has reported that telephone companies were cooperating with the NSA. Slate has published pieces that advanced the story.

But Cauley was the first to confirm the extent of the NSA’s collection of average citizens’ phone records from their telecommunications companies, like AT&T and Verizon. USA Today’s 2.3-million circulation blasted Cauley’s report around the country in clear language.

Washington quaked.

This breakthrough was a victory for beat reporting and for USA Today, which was derided as “McPaper” when it started publishing colorful pages and bite-size news articles in 1982.

“We’ve come a long way,” says executive editor John Hillkirk, who’s been there from the start.

Cauley, USA Today’s telecom reporter based in New York, says she came upon the story in the course of everyday reporting.

“Like any reporter,” she says, “one thread leads to another leads to another” in the “messy process of reporting.”

Part of the messy process was clearing the use of anonymous sources, on which the story was based.

Says Cauley: “This further validates the use of confidential, unnamed sources. They have a real value in our business.”

Hillkirk says he was briefed along the way. “We don’t use anonymous sources all that often,” he says, “but there are stories where we do. They are carefully vetted. Every unidentified source must be identified and approved by a managing editor.”

Cauley might have better leads and sources than any reporter on the telecom beat. She’s been covering telecommunications for 20 years. She has collected five beat-up Rolodexes.

“I let my reporting take me where it took me,” she says. “I know a broad, eclectic collection of people, many in Washington.”

Cauley, 49, reported for the Washington Times in the 1980s and worked briefly for USA Today in 1992 and 1993. She left to cover telecommunications for the Wall Street Journal until taking a break to write books in 2001. End of the Line: The Rise and Fall of AT&T was published last August and was nominated for a Pulitzer.

Delving into the spook world is a detour for Cauley. Her expertise is the business of telecommunications.

“I have a great interest in public policy,” she says. “I’ve been detailed to work on this story for the foreseeable future.”