Feinstein Chambliss
Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and committee ranking member Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) speak during a news conference. Reuters

The leading senators on the Intelligence Committee Thursday downplayed the significance of the National Security Agency’s mass collection of Verizon phone records as others voiced outrage over what they viewed as a gross invasion of privacy.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told an impromptu news conference in the Capitol that the NSA phone record data-collection effort is legal under the Patriot Act. She suggested that uproar over the government poring over the records is overblown, pointing out that the data collected is “metadata,” or information about the phone calls, including the length of the calls and the phone numbers involved in the conversations, not the content of the calls. Feinstein said the phone calls weren’t wiretapped, such as did occur illegally without warrants by the NSA under the George W. Bush administration.

“It is lawful. It has been briefed to Congress,” Feinstein said, according to Talking Points Memo. “This is just metadata. There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication. … The records can only be accessed under heightened standards.”

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., echoed Feinstein, saying the court-approved phone records collection has been standard procedure and that lawmakers are briefed on the program.

"This is nothing particularly new," he said. "This has been going on for seven years under the auspices of the FISA authority, and every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this.”

Chambliss even went so far as to say that the program has been a help to the war on terror, although he did not say to what extent the data collection has been used in counterterrorism efforts.

“It has proved meritorious because we have gathered significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years,” the Georgia senator said.

Since the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald broke the story about the Verizon phone snooping, critics of the program say the tactics are a violation of civil liberties. Some are also skeptical that the government isn’t listening in on Americans’ calls without warrants.

National security expert John Miller of CBS was asked on “CBS This Morning” if the skepticism about listening in is valid.

The NSA “better not be, because everybody at the NSA knows if they’re listening in on American citizens without a very special order or ruling from their lawyers, they’re going to jail,” Miller said. “That was the rule of thumb. They’re the most conservative agency about that, probably of any [agency], sometimes to a fault.”