Feinstein and Chambliss went further defending the secret program, arguing that the details have been "very clear" to people in the know and has "proved meritorious" because "we have gathered significant information on bad guys – but only bad guys over the years."
The program, according to The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, who first reported the existence of the warrant for Verizon's data, enables the government to gather information on potentially every electronic communication in the United States - where is was made, from what contact number and how long it lasted. This so-called "metadata" does not include a recording of the actual phone call or transmission. But it can be useful in unearthing networks of people.
The senators said it is "simply what we call metadata," that is "never utilized by any governmental agency unless they go back to the FISA court and show that there is real cause as to why something within the meta data should be looked at," Chambliss said.
"It's what we call minimized," Chambliss continued, "All these numbers are basically ferreted out but if there is a number that matches a terrorist number that has been dialed by a US number is dialed from a terrorist to a US number then that might be flagged. And they may or may not seek a court order to go forward on that particular instance. But that is the only time that that information is ever used in any kind of substantive way."
The senators said this issue has been widely debated in Intelligence Committee and all senators were aware of this. To back that up Feinstein supplied two letters to reporters from the committee sent to all senators Feb. 8, 2011 and Feb. 23, 2010 prior to a similar renewal of the phone data request, asking that members come in to review the renewal in a classified session.
Feinstein declined to say whether other phone companies are giving similar data to NSA.