he U.S. Postal Service is spying on us. And they’re not doing a very good job at it. I’m not talking about peeking into letters or looking at how many mutual fund statements you receive. I’m talking about the systematic collection of information on every single piece of mail you send or receive, including the names and addresses of the sender and recipient, without a warrant or oversight and without any explanation to the person being targeted.
Indeed, the USPS Inspector General has even issued a report saying that the Postal Service “failed to properly safeguard documents that included the names, addresses, and financial information used by its law enforcement arm to monitor the mail of people suspected of criminal activities or for national security purposes.” The USPS “mail cover surveillance program” is poorly run, poorly managed, and could “reveal personally identifiable information and compromise the security of the mail,” the report said.
What makes this program particularly dangerous is that there is no judicial oversight, no appeals process, and no way of knowing why any one person is under surveillance or when the surveillance began or will end. I know. I’m under Postal Service surveillance.
I served 23 months in prison for blowing the whistle on the CIA’s illegal torture program. After having been locked up for two months, I decided to commission a card from a very artistically-inclined prisoner for my wife’s 40th birthday. I sent it about two weeks before her birthday. She never received it. Finally, about four months later, the card was delivered back to me with a yellow “Return to Sender – Address Not Known” sticker on it. But underneath that sticker was a second yellow sticker. That one read, “Do Not Deliver. Hold For Supervisor. Cover Program.”
Why was I under Postal Service Surveillance? I have no idea. I had had my day in court. The case was over. But remember, the Postal Service doesn’t have to answer to anybody – my attorneys, my judge, even its own Inspector General. It doesn’t need a warrant to spy on me (or my family) and it doesn’t have to answer even to a member of Congress who might inquire as to why the spying was happening in the first place.
The problem is not just the sinister nature of a government agency (or quasi-government agency) spying on individuals with no probable cause or due process, although those are serious problems. It’s that the program is handled so poorly and so haphazardly that in some cases surveillance was initiated against individuals for no apparent law enforcement reason and that surveillance was initiated by Postal Service employees not even authorized to do so. Again, there is no recourse because the people under surveillance don’t even know that any of this is happening.
Perhaps an even more disturbing aspect of the program is the fact that between 2000 and 2012, the Postal Service initiated an average of 8,000 mail cover requests per year. But in 2013, that number jumped to 49,000. Why? Nobody knows. And remember, the Postal Service doesn’t have to answer to anybody.
So where does all this surveillance information end up? Much of it remains with the Postal Service, which is always looking for people illegally sending things (drugs, weapons, etc.) through the mail. A lot of it also goes to the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Internal Revenue Service.
But between 2011 and 2013, 800 “Special Mail Cover” operations were approved. These dealt with “national security.” Again, because there is no judicial or Congressional oversight, we don’t really know what this means. Does the information go to the FBI? The CIA? The Department of Homeland Security? Who knows? Is it used to target political opponents of the administration? Is it used to build cases against civil liberties activists? There aren’t any answers.
The civil libertarian Reason Foundation wrote in early November that the system already is being grossly abused. The notorious Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and an Arizona prosecutor used mail cover surveillance against a politician who criticized them. And a former FBI agent said the mail cover program is “So easy to use. You don’t have to go through a judge. You just fill out a form.”
With that said, there’s at least some oversight. Federal prosecutors a few years ago charged a letter carrier with a felony for tipping off a customer on her route that he was under Postal Service surveillance. There’s justice for you.
John Kiriakou is an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies. He is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.