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The NSA has compiled phone records of tens of millions of Americans as part of its efforts to combat terrorism, according to an investigation by USA Today.

The data - obtained from AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth - included records of numbers dialed, the duration and time of calls. The content of calls was not involved in the program. Among major telecos, only Quest balked at involvement in the scheme. The data is been used in traffic analysis programs designed to highlight "suspicious" patterns of telephone calls.

Privacy advocates such as the Electronic Privacy Information Centre have reacted angrily to the revelations. It points out that the news makes a mockery of previous White House reassurances that the country's surveillance programs were "highly targeted" and directed only to "international communications".

President Bush, while not specifically referring to the USA Today reports, defended the US's intelligence efforts and claimed that "the privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities". ®

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