As the movie opens, the legislature is close to passing legislation to expand surveillance powers of law enforcement agencies. Republican Congressman Phil Hammersly (Jason Robards, uncredited) is trying to stop the bill because he believes it is an invasion of privacy, while Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight) is trying to push the bill through to confront growing terrorist threats against the U.S.--and advance his own career. Hammersly, on making it clear he won't reconsider, is then killed with a syringe to the neck near a lake by David Pratt (Barry Pepper), one of two rogue NSA agents loyal to Reynolds, who plant a bottle of heart medication near the body to make the death seem like a heart attack. However, a video camera set up by wildlife researcher Daniel Zavitz (Jason Lee) to monitor geese migration caught the entire incident.
When Zavitz views Hammersley's murder, he realizes that the news reports of a sudden heart attack are false and sends word to a friend of his, an anti-war activist. Zavitz is unaware that another of Reynolds' agents saw him retrieve the tape from the video camera, alerting them that Zavitz could have possibly videotaped the murder. He copies the tape onto a computer cartridge, and when NSA agents arrive, he hides the tape in a TurboExpress and escapes. Tracked by satellite and pursued by NSA agents, Zavitz bumps into an old friend from Georgetown University, labor lawyer Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith) who is in a ladies undergarment store shopping for a gift for his wife.
Dean had just come from a meeting with mafia members who control a labor union he is representing and beat up one of the members for not toeing the line. He had raised their ire by showing them a videotape of Pintero (Tom Sizemore) consorting with union officials, in violation of his parole. Pintero threatens to kill Dean within a week if he does not give them the name of the source.
While Dean hands Zavitz his business card, Zavitz drops the cartridge with the murder footage into Dean's shopping bag (without Dean's knowledge) and then flees. Pursued by NSA agents, Zavitz jumps onto a bike and rides down a busy street, where he is hit and killed by a firetruck. After finding Dean's business card on Zavitz's body, the agents visit Dean posing as detectives from the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia. Unaware that Zavitz gave him the video, Dean tells them he has no knowledge of their allegations that he was passed "sensitive materials," denying them access to his bags without a warrant. Dean then tries to find these materials, but unbeknownst to him, his son had already removed the device from his shopping bags.