James Cole, deputy attorney general, testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that when it comes to metadata collection, "every now and then there may be a mistake."
Cole made the revelation while defending the National Security Agency against revelations that it collected and stored the phone records of innocent Americans. The use of such records are supposed to be limited to foreigners being targeted by an approved investigation, but sometimes, Cole says, "A wrong phone number is hit or a person who shouldn't have been targeted gets targeted because there's a mistake in the phone record."
This has been the fear of surveillance opponents since the Patriot Act was passed over a decade ago. Until now, Americans did not know for sure the full extent of what information the government had on them. Thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden, it is now known that the government collects basic phone records (the number called, the number dialed from, the date and the duration of the call) but does not listen to those calls.
However, Cole says, if and when such a mistake occurs, it has to be reported to the FISA court, which grants surveillance requests, immediately. It must also be reported to the intelligence and judiciary committees in both houses of Congress.
But if such a mistake occurs, and a U.S. citizen believes he or she has been incorrectly targeted, they have no way to seek retribution. Metadata collection may not have gotten to that point, as the safeguards in place have seemed to work, but since there are no consequences built into the law, the government can essentially not be held accountable.