WASHINGTON (CBS SF) -- Senior California U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thursday thatthe top secret court order for telephone records of millions of U.S. customers is a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice.
Feinstein (D-San Francisco) spoke to reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference after the Obama administration defended the National Security Agency's need to collect the records.
The practice of collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top secret court order was first reported in Britain's Guardian newspaper reported Wednesday.
Verizon Communications Inc. listed 121 million customers in its first-quarter earnings report this April – 98.9 million wireless customers, 11.7 million residential phone lines and about 10 million commercial lines, according to the Associated Press.
The court order didn't specify which customers' records were being tracked.
Under the terms of the order, the phone numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as are call time and duration, and unique identifiers. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered, The Guardian said.
"As far as I know, this is the exact 3-month renewal of what has been the case for the past 7 years," Feinstein said.
Under the business records section of the Patriot Act, the renewal must be carried out by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court and is "lawful", according to Feinstein.
The program – which had been reported on as early as 2006 during the Bush Administration – has been briefed to Congress and records do not contain the content of phone calls and other communications, Feinstein added.
"[The metadata in] these records can only be accessed under heightened standards," said Feinstein. "The information goes into a database, but cannot be accessed without what's called – and I quote – 'reasonable, articuable suspicion that the records are relevant and related to terrorist activity'."
Other lawmakers have said previously that the practice is legal under the Patriot Act, although civil libertarians have complained about U.S. snooping on American citizens.
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