Secret Surveillance of Americans’ Mail Revealed to be Widespread with Lax Oversight
The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) routinely snoops on the mail of thousands of Americans at the behest of law enforcement, while not providing sufficient oversight for the program, according to the agency’s inspector general (IG).
Last year alone, USPS approved nearly 50,000 “mail cover” requests from police and agency inspectors to secretly monitor individuals’ mail for criminal and national security investigations.
The fact that USPS performed such activities was not new; mail covers have been in use for more than 100 years. But the scope of the surveillance was not previously known to be so widespread, Ron Nixon reported at The New York Times nor was the absence of oversight from potential abuses.
Federal and other law enforcement agencies have stepped up use of mail covers as part of counterterrorism and criminal cases since 9/11.
As part of its sorting system, the Postal Service routinely photographs each piece of mail that comes through its facilities. However, these images can also be used by law enforcement officials in an investigation.
An IG audit, first uncovered by Politico, showed the USPS often approved requests to monitor a person’s mail without ensuring the request was properly authorized or adequately justified.
According to the audit, “Of the 196 external mail cover requests we reviewed, 21 percent were approved without written authorization and 13 percent were not adequately justified or reasonable grounds were not transcribed accurately.”
In one instance of abuse of mail covers, the USPS allowed Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas to investigate a political opponent, Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, who had objected to Arpaio’s harassment of Hispanics and pry into communications between lawyers and their clients using mail covers. Thomas was eventually disbarred and Wilcox won a million-dollar settlement from the Postal Service.
-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley
To Learn More:
Report Reveals Wider Tracking of Mail in U.S. (by Ron Nixon, New York Times)
Postal Service Photographs Every Piece of Mail in the U.S., Shares With Agencies That Request It (by Lauren Walker, Newsweek)
Audit Report: Postal Inspection Service Mail Covers Program (Office of Inspector General, U.S. Postal Service) (pdf)
Snail Mail Snooping Safeguards Not Followed (by Josh Gerstein, Politico)
Postal Service Photographs Every Piece of Mail Sent in U.S. (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
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