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U.S. Postal Service Spying on Americans Without Oversight

An imaging tool is used to photograph of the exterior of every piece of paper mail processed in the United States.

The United States Postal Service disclosed it approved nearly 50,000 requests, called “mail covers,” last year alone from law enforcement to secretly monitor the snail mail of Americans.

An audit shows the surveillance program is more extensive than widely known and that oversight protecting Americans is lax: 21 percent of the covers examined were approved without even the minimal required written authorization and 13 percent that did have authorization “were not adequately justified.” The Post Office has no standing review procedures.

Mail Cover is Nothing New, But…

The Post Office helping spy on Americans per se is nothing new; its program to record your mail’s “metadata,” who sent what to whom, complete with addresses and date/time stamps, has existed in the form of an overt program detailed in federal law called “mail cover” since well before the term metadata was even invented. As mail cover does not involve reading the mail’s contents, only information on the outside of the envelope or package that could be read by anyone seeing the item, it is not considered by precedent a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unwarranted searches.

Official versions of mail cover are acknowledged as far back as World War I. But like many such things– wiretapping, border detentions, searches and seizures, old Executive Orders, signing statements– its former existence, restrained in theory and often in practice in Constitutional America, is largely irrelevant now to all but historians. What has happened post-9/11 to mail covers is what has happened to America.

How Did Mail Cover Use to Work?

A mail cover has to be requested by a state or federal law enforcement agency. Following internal approval, postal workers intercept the target’s mail before delivery, and record the names, return addresses and any other information from the outside of letters and packages before they are delivered to a person’s home. The Post Office does not notify the recipient or the sender that the cover is in place.

Prior to 9/11, the process had an old-timey feel to it, almost quaint. In a 2006 leaked instruction manual, agencies seeking a mail cover were told to first fill out a paper form, the External Law Enforcement Request for Mail Cover Template. Law enforcement was reminded to include the Zip +4 for all subjects. An electronic version of the form was supposedly available, but you had to telephone the Post Office personally to get one.

The template required a paper cover letter requesting the action on agency letterhead, signed by the requesting agent’s supervisor. The form would then need to be put into an envelope marked Restricted Information, with that sealed inside a second envelope, and then snail-mailed via the regular first class, unclassified, mail system, to the appropriate section of the Post Office. Information obtained by the Post Office would be sent back on a Form 2009.

Implementation was largely also a paper process. One subject learned his mail was being covered after he received a handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home. “Show all mail to supv for copying prior to going out on the street,” read the card. The word “confidential” was highlighted in green. Another subject was told he was being covered by his regular mail delivery person.

The standards for law enforcement to request a mail cover were low; “reasonable grounds that demonstrate the information from the mail cover is necessary to develop evidence in a criminal investigation.” Covers were not to be used as the first step in an investigation (on an honor system) and could not include attorney-client mail if the attorney of record is known (on an honor system.)

The key point is that absent a specific request to monitor a specific person, the mail was simply delivered as it had been since the time of the pony express. [cont’d.]

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (the book’s all in English, don’t worry). Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael Moore.com, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others.