Before the NSA, There Was the USPS
By Nicandro Iannacci, Yahoo! News
02 November 14
Imagine opening your mailbox to find a note that reads, “Show all mail to [supervisor] for copying prior to going out on the street.” Last year, one man did just that, leading to the discovery of secret surveillance programs for U.S. snail mail.
That man, Leslie James Pickering, is a bookstore owner in Buffalo. More than a decade ago, however, Pickering was formerly a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, an environmental group deemed “eco-terrorists” by the FBI—and the presumed cause of his surveillance.
Pickering’s story was first reported by the New York Times last July by Washington correspondent Ron Nixon. This week, Nixon is back with a fuller accounting of the surveillance programs carried out by the U.S. Postal Service.
The “mail covers” program, under which Pickering was targeted, dates back more than a century. Law enforcement officials send requests to postal workers, who then record any visible information on the outside of envelopes or packages addressed to the surveillance target. That includes any names, addresses, return addresses and postmarks—the original “metadata.”
The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking Program began in late 2001 after government officials were targeted with anthrax. It permits law enforcement to retrace the path of a particular piece of mail. This program was used in an investigation of ricin-laced letters sent to President Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg last year.
Mail Imaging, a program by which computers take pictures of all mail items, was established by the Postal Service simply to help process deliveries. Now, law enforcement officials can request the stored images of mail sent or received by a surveillance target. There is no specified length of time for which those photos can be stored.
According to an internal audit, posted with redactions earlier this year and first reported by Politico, these programs resulted in nearly 50,000 requests last year alone. Documents obtained by the New York Times through a FOIA request revealed 100,000 requests over the last decade, but that number excludes requests related to national security or requests by the Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of the USPS.
What’s raising more eyebrows, however, is the audit’s account of internal privacy safeguards.
According to the USPS Office of Inspector General, 20 percent of law enforcement requests were not properly approved, and 13 percent were unjustified or not properly documented. Those statistics are compounded by the fact that the requests are not subject to judicial review.
The audit also found that the USPS has not been conducting annual reviews as required by federal law, and that more than 900 mail covers are still “active” even though the orders for them expired.
“Insufficient controls could hinder the Postal Inspection Service’s ability to conduct effective investigations, lead to public concerns over privacy of mail and harm the Postal Service’s brand,” the report concluded.
Paul Krenn, a spokesman for the Inspection Service, defended his agency. “You can’t just get a mail cover to go on a fishing expedition,” he told the New York Times. “There has to be a legitimate law enforcement reason, and the mail cover can’t be the sole tool.”
But Theodore Simon, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, is not so sure. “It appears that there has been widespread disregard of the few protections that were supposed to be in place,” he said.
There are indeed stories of deliberate abuse. Mary Rose Wilcox, a Maricopa County supervisor in Arizona, was targeted in 2011 by her county’s famous immigration opponent, Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The sheriff’s office used mail covers to justify warrants for raids on her business.
Cynthia Orr, a defense lawyer in Texas, was targeted in the early 2000s while working on a pornography case. Her communications with colleagues and clients were monitored using mail covers.
And in 1973, a high school student in New Jersey was targeted for sending a letter to the Socialist Workers Party. The FBI was using mail covers to investigate the party.
In a commentary for Lawfare, Benjamin Wittes isn’t sure anyone will ultimately care.
“The reason, I suspect, that this program will not excite the same sorts of passions as does the NSA’s program is that it involves old technology—paper—and it’s been going on for a long time,” he writes. “And we all have a certain comfort level with the idea that the Postal Service looks at the outside of our mail to deliver it and we thus don’t feel a special expectation of privacy in the information on the outside of the envelope.”
“In other words, it’s just mail. Most of it is junk anyway. So we shrug.”
© 2014 Reader Supported News
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