Law enforcement requests for postal info granted

March 6, 2008
By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — U.S. postal authorities have approved more than 10,000 law enforcement requests to record names, addresses and other information from the outside of letters and packages of suspected criminals every year since 1998, according to U.S. Postal Inspection Service data.

In each of those years, officials approved more than 97% of requests to record the information during criminal inquiries. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, the most recent year provided, officials granted at least 99.5% of requests, according to partial responses to inquiries filed by USA TODAY under the Freedom of Information Act.

Postal officials have closely guarded the warrantless surveillance mail program, used for decades to track fugitives and to interrupt the delivery of illegal drugs or other controlled substances such as explosives. In other government surveillance, such as most wiretap programs, a judge approves requests. In this one, the USPIS’ chief inspector has authority to grant or deny a request.

The Postal Service handles 214 billion pieces of mail each year. Correspondence and packages transported by private carriers, such as FedEx and UPS, are not subject to the surveillance.

When the government’s warrantless surveillance of electronic communication has come under fire, civil liberties advocates say, the USPIS’ limited disclosure raises serious questions. “The idea of the government tracking that amount of mail is quite alarming,” says Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project. “When you realize that (the figure) does not include national security matters, the numbers are even more alarming.”

Postal officials would not disclose the volume of mail monitored in national security investigations. Because those include terror-related inquiries, the figures do not show whether the Sept. 11 attacks influenced requests or approvals.

In a Feb. 8 response to requests for information, 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.”

Postal officials also would not discuss how much mail is being opened for content examinations, which do require a warrant authorized by a judge.

USPIS spokesman Douglas Bem described the surveillance program as “one of many tools” available to investigators. “Regulations are in place that serve to protect the general population from illegal and unlawful intrusions,” Bem says. A 1978 federal appeals court decision upheld the use of such surveillance.

Each request to monitor a sender’s mail can cover multiple letters and packages by the same suspects. Bem said the government does not track the total pieces of mail captured in the monitoring program.

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