BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
MIKE PESCA: Bob Garfield is out this week. I'm Mike Pesca. USA Today's recent scoop about how three big phone companies were handing their customer call records over to the National Security Agency generated more headlines this week. Verizon said it had never been asked for the data and never provided it, and Bell South asked USA Today to retract its quote "false and unsubstantiated statements". Also this week, in Senate confirmation hearings, Michael Hayden, who's nominated to head the CIA, insisted that the NSA programs are legal and necessary. And in other phone tapping news, ABC News claimed that calls made by their reporters were being tracked. According to ABC, the government knew about calls placed by reporters Brian Ross and Richard Esposito. Ross, who is ABC's chief investigative correspondent, suspects the stories that put the feds on the telephone trail may have been their reporting on seven approved techniques for interrogation or their story on so-called "black site" prisons in Romania and Poland. But Ross never would have known if he hadn't received a call from someone in the know, who rang with this warning.
BRIAN ROSS: This is a senior federal law enforcement official who told us, "We know who you're calling, I've seen it, you should get some new cell phones quick." And that was essentially it.
MIKE PESCA: Did he prove, or she prove, that they knew who you were calling by telling you who you were calling?
BRIAN ROSS: This person did cite one particular contact.
MIKE PESCA: And that was a call you made, not a call to you?
BRIAN ROSS: Not a call to me. It was a call made by my colleague, Richard Esposito.
MIKE PESCA: And from what you wrote, you made a distinction between tracking and backtracking. Just take us through it. What's the difference?
BRIAN ROSS: I asked another law enforcement official about this, and what he said was, "Well, you're wrong to say it's tracking, think of it more as backtracking." And I said, "What's the difference?" He said, "Well, we're not watching you on a contemporaneous way, but if there is a referral for a criminal investigation into a leak of classified information, we go get phone records, first from the government agency that might be involved," and then what they call the "next logical investigative step;" they go for reporters' records.
MIKE PESCA: This story came out within a week of that USA Today story about a massive NSA data-mining program.
BRIAN ROSS: Right.
MIKE PESCA: Do you have any reason to believe the two things are connected?
BRIAN ROSS: I don't know. From what I know of the NSA program, my understanding is that really is looking at patterns of phone calls and does not look to detect individual contacts, and it wouldn't be that useful in a way, because the information, as I understand that the NSA getting, is sort of stripped of names and so on and is more really dedicated to determining patterns that connect overseas.
MIKE PESCA: So if there's any connection, it may have something to do with just the different overall philosophy of government looking into people-- [OVERTALK]
BRIAN ROSS: Right. Well, I think that you put your finger right on it. I think the connection, as it was described to me by one official, was this used to be difficult for us to go after reporters and their phone records. It no longer is hard. It's easy. We always get approval. The Justice Department guidelines provide for advanced approval from the attorney general. And this person told me this is no longer a problem. It's not a problem to get approval to seek reporters' phone records
MIKE PESCA: Tell me a little bit about your standard operating procedure. When you hear from a confidential source, do you make it a point to say, "You don't call me from work, or I will call you?" How do you usually do that?
BRIAN ROSS: Without giving away too much, I don't really obsess about that sort of thing. I guess I have assumed that whoever's calling me, you know, is doing it in a way that is not traceable or at least deniable, [LAUGHS] if they're caught out. A lot of people like to talk at home. Some talk in the office. Some only talk in person. Those are people who would not show up on our phone records.
MIKE PESCA: How do you think of it now? You've been told you're being backtracked. Do you feel that you're being surveilled? Do you think about it that way?
BRIAN ROSS: I don't think of it that way. I think that any future stories about the CIA-- likely they will take my phone records and try to figure out who I was talking to. So what I'm changing and which Rich Esposito's changing, we're just going to have to use a lot more shoe leather.
MIKE PESCA: Do you think if I look at your output over the next couple years, I'm going to be able to see any difference?
BRIAN ROSS: I think you'll see more, frankly. We're trying to stand up to this, and as a result we are getting more leads.
MIKE PESCA: Brian, thanks very much for coming on.
BRIAN ROSS: Thank you very -- it was great. Good talking to you.
MIKE PESCA: Brian Ross is chief investigative correspondent for ABC News.