The Surveillance State

By: Phil Williams

Late on a Friday evening recently, Congress renewed Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). I get a strange chill up my spine when the House Freedom Caucus and the ACLU find themselves aligned. Yet, there we were.

Renewal of FISA for two more years gives the US intelligence agencies the means to surveil Americans without a warrant. Proponents say that in today’s world, FISA is necessary to provide security by intercepting crime before it happens. Opponents argue that FISA is a dangerous encroachment on our 4th Amendment right against unlawful search and seizure.

It is part of the slow dribbling away of our privacy rights. It caused a flashback to a movie called The Truman Show. Filmed just down the road in Seaside, FL, the movie followed the everyday life of a man named Truman who was unknowingly the centerpiece of a reality show. Truman lived in a fabricated world never realizing all of his friends, family, and co-workers were cast members. His every moment was contrived. For the outside world, The Truman Show was a fixation as people spent countless hours hanging on the everyday events in the life of Truman.

But there was a sadness to the story as it became apparent that every day saw new mind games played on him by the infamous Director Cristo. For audience pleasure, Cristo would stoke fears and stir emotions just to keep Truman in the positions needed for the show. The greater goal was the ratings and the endorsements.

Truman was likeable but sorrowful. A man who had no say in the events of his life. A man who had absolutely no privacy. A rightful sense that he was watched. Every corner of his life had a hidden camera. If he whispered to his girlfriend, the world knew it. If he dreamed of a vacation, a script was written to convince him he couldn’t go. If he sang in the shower, read a book, or drank a soda, it was all about product placement for the sponsors.

Everyone had an angle. Everyone was a manipulator. Everyone stood to gain from Truman, except Truman. Truman was duped but not a dupe himself. Suspicions set in as characters were accidentally caught out of character. He began to see through the façade.

In today’s world, there is too often a complete loss of anonymity. Criminals can walk past in the grocery store and scan data off a smartphone. Credit cards can be co-opted by holding a device close to your wallet on a crowded subway. Criminals can track your movement by slipping an air pod in a gym bag. But we don’t expect to see that kind of thing from our government. It starts with simple things like red light cameras. Insidious devices that take a picture of you as you drive by and then send you a demand in the mail months later to pay a fine or risk a warrant. No 6th Amendment right to face your accuser, just a moneymaker for the local municipality. COVID saw proof of medical vaccination data to eat in a restaurant. It becomes a very slippery slope when we must display our private lives to be allowed to do public things.

Then there’s the farming of social media. It’s in the public domain, right? Until you realize the government’s intent is to deal with your “misinformation” because it conflicts with the government’s narrative.

But one of the hallmarks of a free and open democracy is the ability to converse with our elected officials. We have access because they are truly our “representatives” in the halls of government. Until the surveillance state decides that may be a problem. In 2022, Congressman Troy Nehls (R-TX) made known that Capitol Police had illegally entered his office dressed as construction workers. Nehls asserted the copying of legislative papers and grilling of his staff as to certain meetings he had. If true, it would be a heinous violation of the Speech and Debate Clause of Article 1 Section 6 of the Constitution. The plot thickened when 33 House Republicans sent a letter to former Speaker Pelosi calling for an investigation into alleged surveillance abuses by the Capitol Police. The letter raised concerns the Capitol Police were surveilling members of Congress, Congressional staff, and their Capitol visitors.

Some would claim that this level of police state action is necessary in the name of security. After all, “insurrection” is still a buzz word for many in the Capitol! We must be safe! We must know your business! Privacy be danged! The greater good demands it!

What it also does is put a chilling effect on the ability of members of Congress to hold meetings with concerned constituents, business interests, or for that matter, to just grill out with friends when they’re home from D.C. Without probable cause, no member of Congress or their various constituencies should expect to be surveilled.

I’ll add fuel to the fire by pointing out that Congressman Nehls is also a staunch Trump supporter who wore a t-shirt with Trump’s mugshot on it to Biden’s most recent State of the Union address. Immediately thereafter, a report was filed against him causing a House Ethics investigation of his campaign finances. Nothing to see here. Move along, please.

We deserve better than this. Citizens of this great nation deserve to know that their rights to speak freely, confront their accusers, remain free from unlawful search and seizure, or meet with duly elected officials will be preserved. Ben Franklin famously said, “Those who give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

If we continue down this path, we will become a society of Trumans with the government serving as Director Cristo.

Keep your eyes open and smile for the camera y’all.

By: Phil Williams