Big Brother looms large at FreedomFest

Big Brother is watching Americans’ every move and violating their civil rights at every turn as the country becomes a militarized police state, participants at a libertarian-minded gathering in Las Vegas said Thursday.

Panelists at FreedomFest offered plenty of real-world examples to illustrate their argument that federal, state and local authorities routinely violate U.S. citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, noted that about 1 percent of U.S. taxpayers are audited each year by the Internal Revenue Service compared to 10 percent of those who have donated money to tea party groups. The data was revealed in May by a House committee investigating the IRS, which is accused of targeting conservatives.

“If you are part of a group that has ‘tea party or ‘patriots’ in the name, you have experienced Big Brother,” Martin said, speaking to an audience of more than 1,000 people at the annual conference of self-described “free-thinkers.”

The conference, with about 2,500 participants, continues at Planet Hollywood through Saturday. The audience Thursday was dominated by older, white Americans, some in business suits. In the exhibition hall, booths were set up by young libertarians and people selling commemorative coins, for example. Only one person was spotted wearing a “Don’t Tread on Me,” T-shirt, which has come to symbolize anti-tax and anti-government activists.

In a morning forum, Matt Kibbe, whose FreedomWorks organization trains political activists, cited abuses by the National Security Agency, which has for years eavesdropped on everyday Americans.

“If you’re sitting here this morning wondering whether the NSA is stalking you, the answer is yes,” Kibbe said. “If you made a phone call since 2006, they got your data. They got your stuff.”

Kibbe called U.S. government spies “faceless, gray-suited Soviets,” a reference to the old Soviet Union, which was legend for monitoring and randomly punishing people for their political views. Kibbe and two other panelists suggested the same sort of thing is happening under President Barack Obama’s administration.

“They use their discretion to target you,” Kibbe said of U.S., state and local government agencies. “They’re willing to target people who undermine the rights of the bureaucratic class.”

Kibbe said he and other civil libertarians were “deeply concerned” for years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks because few Americans were troubled by civil rights violations in the name of national security. Now, he said, people — particularly the young — are starting to push back.

“The only defense is people,” Kibbe said. “There’s a lot more of us than there are of them.”

Radley Balko, a Washington Post reporter who has written often about the growing police state in America, said he’s just as concerned about government agencies routinely violating people’s rights with little or no accountability.

Balko gave several examples that have made national headlines, including a case this week in Manassas, Va., where a 17-year-old faces felony charges related to pornography after “sexting” a video to his 15-year-old girlfriend. Police wanted to take him to a hospital for a procedure to induce an erection, then take a nude photo for identification purposes. The police reversed themselves Thursday amid criticism.

“The story is a little amusing on the surface, but it’s also terrifying,” Balko said after the audience laughed.

In New Mexico, a 54-year-old man was pulled over by police after a “rolling stop.” The officer thought the man was “clenching,” so a judge approved an anal cavity search for marijuana, Balko said. Three such searches turned up no pot. After a hospital X-ray detected no drugs, the man was forced to undergo a colonoscopy, which again turned up no hidden marijuana. While Balko said the man later was paid a settlement — $1.6 million, according to news reports — the police officers and the judge “are still on the job.” He noted that judges have absolute immunity and police have qualified immunity, meaning it’s impossible or very difficult for people to file charges against them.

Balko said local police agencies also are using federal grants to buy military gear, including tanks and other armored vehicles, which can intimidate the population.

Police departments also are getting from federal authorities a device called a Stingray that allows them to listen in on cell phone conversations within a 2-mile radius, Balko said. He said the Obama administration is encouraging police to use the eavesdropping tech in drug and pornography investigations, although they’re supposed to be for national security purposes.

Balko alleged U.S. marshals tell police to lie in court if asked why they use the Stingrays.

“Police are being encouraged by the federal government to break the law, to commit perjury,” Balko charged. “And nobody is being held accountable for this.”

People who are subject to abuse or who witness civil liberties violations are now sometimes recording such incidents on video, using their handy cell phones, Balko noted. The problem is, in some cases, police will confiscate the recording device and delete incriminating videos or photos, which is a legal violation.

“That’s destruction of evidence,” Balko said. “Never has a police officer been charged with destroying evidence in these cases. … You have a protected right to record.”

Balko suggested people immediately download such videos to servers, so there is a copy that can be retrieved.

During a question-and-answer period with the forum moderator, all three panelists said there’s a political opportunity now to fight back against such government intrusion and they predicted such abuses would then be relaxed or stop.

“Now there’s much more skepticism” of government, Balko said.

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Find her on Twitter: @lmyerslvrj.

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