The existence of a surveillance program exclusively focused on traditional “snail” mail has been known since at least the beginning of 2014. In December 2014, Truth In Media’s Barry Donegan wrote:
“At a hearing before the House of Representatives last month, USPS Deputy Inspector General Tammy Whitcomb exposed the fact that the mail carrier only rejected a fraction of a percent of thousands of requests for citizens’ mail records by law enforcement and government officials, including many queries that have been deemed unjustified.
Following leaks exposing the fact that the National Security Agency has been spying on Americans’ digital communications in an indiscriminate and warrantless fashion, SFGate is reporting that the United States Postal Service has also been compiling Americans’ mail records into a nationwide dragnet and giving those records to law enforcement agencies at all levels of government. Under the US Postal Service’s mail covers program, the cover of every piece of mail is photographed, and the subsequent image stored in a database just in case law enforcement might need it at a later date.”
Once the program was first exposed, a USPS watchdog performed an internal audit of the agency and its surveillance measures. That audit was released in May 2014 but several sections were heavily redacted. However, a recent report from the New York Times reveals new details on the program.
“An unredacted copy of the report was provided to a security researcher in response to a Freedom of Information Act request this year. The researcher, who goes by a single legal name, Sai, shared the report with The New York Times.
In a June 8 letter to Sai, the Postal Inspection Service — the Postal Service’s law enforcement arm — said it could not “confirm or deny the existence” of the national security mail cover program, even though it was mentioned in the audit.
“The Postal Service does not provide public comment on matters which could potentially involve national security interests,” Paul J. Krenn, a spokesman, said in an email. The Postal Inspection Service did tell the auditors that it had begun training its employees on handling classified materials.”
The report concerns requests for mail cover photos from 2011 to 2013. The report does not mention which federal agencies are behind the requests. The report did say that the largest users of mail covers were the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.
Several interesting facts are revealed through the uncensored audit. First, about ten percent of requests do not include the dates covered by surveillance, making it impossible to know if law enforcement followed procedure. Another fifteen percent of inspectors handling the mail covers did not have the proper nondisclosure agreements which prevent them from discussing classified information. This might leave room open for whistleblowers who are technically not legally obligated to remain silent on mail cover surveillance.
The audit also found that in the 32 percent of the cases, law enforcement officers did not return documents to the Postal Inspection Service’s Office of Counsel within the allotted 60 days after cases are closed.
The new details of the audit show the USPS failing to maintain proper records and ensure that Americans are not haphazardly being spied upon, as is already the case with digital communications. Future investigations may reveal that the Postal Service is another agency of the government using taxpayer money to monitor innocent civilians.
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