WASHINGTON — In a rare public accounting of its mass surveillance program, the United States Postal Service reported that it approved nearly 50,000 requests last year from law enforcement agencies and its own internal inspection unit to secretly monitor the mail of Americans for use in criminal and national security investigations.
The number of requests, contained in a little-noticed 2014 audit of the surveillance program by the Postal Service’s inspector general, shows that the surveillance program is more extensive than previously disclosed and that oversight protecting Americans from potential abuses is lax.
The audit, along with interviews and documents obtained by The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act, offers one of the first detailed looks at the scope of the program, which has played an important role in the nation’s vast surveillance effort since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The audit found that in many cases the Postal Service approved requests to monitor an individual’s mail without adequately describing the reason or having proper written authorization.
In information provided to The Times earlier this year under the Freedom of Information Act, the Postal Service said that from 2001 through 2012, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies made more than 100,000 requests to monitor the mail of Americans. That would amount to an average of some 8,000 requests a year — far fewer than the nearly 50,000 requests in 2013 that the Postal Service reported in the audit.