FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, file photo, customers walk into a Verizon Wireless store in Dallas. The Obama administration on Thursday, June 6, 2013, defended the government's need to collect telephone records of American citizens, calling such information "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats." Britain's Guardian newspaper reported that the NSA has been collecting the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers under a top secret court order. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)
(CNN) – The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Select Committee On Intelligence said Thursday the government's top-secret court order to obtain phone records on millions of Americans was "lawful" and Congress had been briefed on the issue.
"As far as I know this is the exact three month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years. This renewal is carried out by the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court under the business records section of the Patriot Act," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the intelligence committee, told reporters in the Senate gallery. "Therefore it is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress."
The four-page order, which The Guardian published on its website Wednesday, requires Verizon to hand over "originating and terminating" telephone numbers as well as the location, time and duration of the calls in the United States - and demands that the order be kept secret.
Feinstein, D-California, said the government can only access the metadata, not the actual conversations that take place on the calls. After the information goes into a database, it can only be used if there is "reasonable and articulate suspicion that the records are relevant and related to terrorist activity."
She said terrorists "will come after us if they can and the only thing that we have to deter this is good intelligence to understand that a plot has been hatched and to get there before they get to us."
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the vice chairman and top Republican on the committee, said "this is nothing new." He added it's been "very clear all along through the years of this program" that the information is "simply" metadata and can't be tapped into without approval from the FISA court.
"It has proved meritorious because we have gathered significant information on bad guys and only on bad guys over the years," he said.
– CNN's Dana Bash, Ted Barrett and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.