Steve Chapman

The Patriot Act was passed with a general consensus on what it meant. Supporters didn't disagree with opponents about what it would allow. The argument was whether that was good or bad. Only 12 years later did we learn that the law Congress thought it had passed is very different from the one the executive branch -- not just under Bush but under Barack Obama -- has implemented.

Even the sponsor of the law, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., was surprised to find out its hidden meaning. In his view, "both the administration and the FISA court are relying on an unbounded interpretation of the act that Congress never intended."

This is not the only time Congress acted only to find out that its actions are irrelevant. In 2002, the Pentagon outlined a program called Total Information Awareness that, The New York Times explained, would "provide intelligence analysts and law enforcement officials with instant access to information from Internet mail and calling records to credit card and banking transactions and travel documents, without a warrant."

This set off alarms, with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington predicting it would create "a system of national surveillance of the American public." Congress responded by voting overwhelmingly to cut off funding -- a decision the American Civil Liberties Union hailed as "a resounding victory for individual liberty."

A lot of good it did. Last week, we found out that the feared system of surveillance came about over the express objection of our elected representatives. We also learned that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to Congress about it.

When lawmakers approved the Patriot Act as it was understood then, and when they rejected Total Information Awareness, they were fooling themselves into thinking they had a say. Americans were equally deluded when, in 2008, they elected a president who promised a new era of transparency and respect for privacy.

We still have a democracy in America. It's just not connected to anything.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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