The idea that only a mail carrier will look at a piece of mail is based on a unique understanding of the mail handling process; a Norman Rockwell view of what the modern mail delivery system consists of. In the US, the outside of each piece of mail is photographed. And the information gleaned from these photos, such as religious and political affiliations, is more intimate than people realize. This data was described by a former FBI agent as “easily abused” and a “treasure trove.” Comparing the mail covers to the National Security Agency’s surveillance revealed during the Edward Snowden scandal, the famous security technologist Bruce Schneier once called them “basically … the same thing.”
The letter to Barksdale isn’t just aimed at telling the inspector general — an official who oversees dozens of field offices and labs and an army of law enforcement agents and other technical resources — things which he probably already knew. Instead, they wanted him to finish the process.
The USPS declined to comment.
There is no federal statute that requires the post office to approve mail covers. The Postal Service allows this through its own regulations, which are consistent with its interpretations of what is most permissible under the Fourth Amendment. Those protections were strengthened in 1967 as a result of a US Supreme Court decision that established a legal test—which is still used—known as the “expectation of privacy.” And while the interception of electronic metadata, as the senators said, generally requires a court order—because the courts have decided to do it with the American people. REASONABLE expect the information to be private—judges don’t rule the same way in cases involving physical pieces of mail. There are many complexities involved, but in at least one major case, judges have pointed to another legal test, known as the “plain view doctrine,” which applies to evidence that is clearly visible to investigators.
“The risk of abuse of mail covers is not theoretical,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.
The history of abuse of mail covers, as noted by the legislators, is a long one. A famous incident occurred in the 1970s, when a 15-year-old girl mistakenly wrote the Socialist Workers Party—a communist organization that strongly supported Cuba—while researching a school assignment involving the Socialist Labor Party. The teenager was heavily investigated by the FBI, which even sent an agent to his school.
The senators noted that the Church Committee, formed in 1975 to investigate U.S. intelligence abuses, discovered that the Central Intelligence Agency had photographed “over 2 million pieces of mail,” while opening hundreds of thousands of others, belonging to “prominent activists and authors.”
In fact, the senators said, modern fears of postal abuse hearken back to the Founding Fathers themselves, who denounced what Thomas Jefferson called “the infidelities of the post office,” surveillance that was widespread forcing British labor opponents to encrypt messages. they want to stay private. These messages include, the legislators say, “an early proposal for the Bill of Rights.”
The lawmakers asked Barksdale to stop authorizing mail caps without a federal judge’s approval, “except in emergencies.” And to increase transparency, they say, the post office should start publishing annual statistics on the contents of the mail it allows. This has not been done since at least 2014 (with an Inspector General report).
“While mail covers do not reveal the contents of letters, they can reveal deeply personal information about Americans’ political leanings, religious beliefs, or causes they support,” the senators wrote. Consequently, any such abuses are a threat, they say, not only to the right of Americans to associate politically and religiously, but to assemble “without the government watching.”