Officials monitor thousands of letters without warrants
The US postal service approves more than 10,000 requests from US law enforcement each year to record names, addresses and other information from the outside of packages, according to information released through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The warrantless surveillance mail program -- as it is known -- requires only the approval of the US Postal Inspection Service Director, and not a judge.
Since 1998, the inspector has approved more than 97% of requests during criminal inquiries, new documents show. According to USA Today, which filed the request, "In 2004, 2005 and 2006, the most recent year provided, officials granted at least 99.5% of requests."
"The idea of the government tracking that amount of mail is quite alarming," Director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national security project Jameel Jaffer told the paper. "When you realize that (the figure) does not include national security matters, the numbers are even more alarming."
Officials would not disclose how much mail was monitored in national security or "terror"-related investigations. Under the PATRIOT ACT, those who received letters notifying them that they were being investigated often were gagged from even reporting their being targeted.
Responding to a USA Today request for the national security-related data, "inspection service counsel Anthony Alverno wrote that even revealing the frequency of the surveillance would undermine its effectiveness "to the detriment of the government's national security interests."
Signing statement may have allowed mail to be opened
There's reason to believe more mail may be being opened, as well.
In late 2006, a signing statement issued by President Bush suggested that his office had expanded executive branch power to open mail without a warrant.
The signing statement accompanied H.R. 6407, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006, which reiterated a prohibition on opening first class mail without a warrant.
"In 1996, the postal regulations were altered to permit the opening of First Class mail without a warrant in narrowly defined cases where the Postal Inspector believes there is a credible threat that the package contains dangerous material like bombs," the ACLU said in a press release at the time. "Instead of referencing the narrow exception in the postal regulations, the presidentís signing statement suggests that he is assuming broader authority to open mail without a warrant."
In January 2007, the ACLU and Center for National Security Studies filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking information regarding any additional warrantless mail surveillance.