The defense is "off the record" but since the program is top secret, this is likely the definitive word from the White House on the matter.
An administration official defended the collection of data as a "critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States."
"It allows counter terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States," the official added.
The news that the administration has been conducting secret surveillance on millions of ordinary citizens comes amid intensifying scrutiny over the DOJ's spying on Associated Press and Fox News reporters, delivering another blow to President Obama's already bruised reputation on civil liberties.
The news was first reported by the Guardian newspaper, which on Wednesday published the court order which required Verizon to provide the security agency with information on all customers' phone calls, including those not suspected of wrongdoing.
The order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court covered all Verizon calls from April 25 to July 19.
The administration official defending the NSA's actions emphasized that the court order did not allow the government to listen in on calls, but only to monitor the length of calls and to whom they were made.
"The order reprinted in the article does not allow the Government to listen in on anyone's telephone calls," the administration official said Thursday.
"The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber. It relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call."
I still don't see why collecting millions of records is necessary. The super geeks at the NSA must have a way to cull those phone calls - otherwise, they end up with a gazillion bits of useless data.
It doesn't seem very efficient and, as I mention here, the potential for abuse is real.