Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who authored and introduced the Patriot Act, said Thursday that he was troubled by reports the National Security Agency (NSA) had collected phone records from millions of Americans.

“As the author of the Patriot Act, I am extremely troubled by the FBI’s interpretation of this legislation," Sensenbrenner said in a statement. "While I believe the Patriot Act appropriately balanced national security concerns and civil rights, I have always worried about potential abuses."

The Guardian newspaper reported Wednesday night that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court had approved a court order that required Verizon to turn over metadata on all telephone calls handled since April 25, covering millions of Americans not suspected of committing any crimes. 

The phone company shared data on phone numbers, as well as the length and location of calls.

Sensenbrenner argued such a sweeping data operation should not be permitted under the law.

"The Bureau’s broad application for phone records was made under the so-called business records provision of the Act," he said. "I do not believe the broadly drafted FISA order is consistent with the requirements of the Patriot Act. Seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American.”

The administration, however, defended the data collection, with a senior official calling it a “critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States." The official also said Congress was "regularly and fully briefed" on how the law was being used.

"Activities authorized under the Act are subject to strict controls and procedures under oversight of the Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FISA Court, to ensure that they comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States and appropriately protect privacy and civil liberties," the official said.

The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday said that they had been aware of the phone sweeping program, and that it had begun in 2007.

“Everyone’s been aware of it for years, every member of the Senate,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the panel’s ranking Republican.

Other lawmakers said they had not been aware of the program and called on the administration to provide a legal justification for the data grab.

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