The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee said on Thursday the collection of telephone records from millions of Americans as part of counterterrorism efforts has been going on for seven years and lawmakers were aware of it.
Senators Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, told reporters they did not have a problem with the government's secret collection of records from millions of Verizon customers.
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"It's called protecting America," said Feinstein, the chairwoman of the committee.
She cited the need to protect the privacy rights of Americans, adding: "That's why this is carefully done."
Chambliss, the senior Republican on the committee, said every member of Congress had been told about the program.
"The Intelligence Committee takes this oversight authority and obligation very seriously and we review every program within the intelligence community on a regular basis, including this program," Chambliss said.
Feinstein said the program was renewed by the courts every three months and it had been "widely debated" on the Senate floor.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said he backed the program. "If we don't do it, we are crazy," he said.
The senators made their comments after Britain's Guardian newspaper published on Wednesday a secret court order related to U.S. government collection of records of millions of Verizon Communications customers.
The Obama administration on Thursday defended its collection of telephone records as a "critical" part of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
(Reporting by John Whitesides and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Will Dunham)