The District Sentinel, September 27, 2016, by Sam Sacks
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a letter to the US Postmaster General on Wednesday requesting information about a domestic surveillance operation that logs information about letters in transit.
The spy program, known as “mail covers,” allows postal workers to record the metadata on a letter–including “to” and “from” addresses–without a warrant, and turn the information over to state and federal agencies.
A recent investigation by a Portland, Ore. news outlet, KGW, discovered that the government had submitted nearly 90,000 requests over the last decade to the US Postal Service to collect information about the mail sent to and from particular addresses.
“Given this high volume, it is important to make sure there are strong controls on the program to ensure that this technique is not used improperly,” Sen. Wyden said in his letter to Postmaster General Megan Brennan.
KGW obtained records through the Freedom of Information Act, which revealed that mail surveillance requests came from local police, and federal agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the US State Department, and US Marshals Service.
Wyden referenced in his letter a 2014 audit of the mail covers program by the US Postal Service’s Inspector General that criticized managers for taking a cavalier approach to mail surveillance.
“Of the 196 external mail cover requests we reviewed, 21 percent were approved without written authorization and 13 percent were not adequately justified or reasonable grounds were not transcribed accurately,” the IG reported.
The watchdog added: “Insufficient controls could hinder the Postal Inspection Service’s ability to conduct effective investigations, lead to public concerns over privacy of mail, and harm the Postal Service’s brand.”
Sen. Wyden called on the Postmaster General to provide him an update on that IG review, and discuss what steps the USPS has taken since to shore up internal management of the program.
According to KGW, one individual targeted by postal surveillance was Leslie James Pickering—a former spokesperson for the environmental group, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which the FBI regards as an eco-terrorist organization.
Pickering, a prior resident of Portland, only discovered that he was under surveillance in 2012, after a confidential notecard with information about the program was misplaced inside one of his letters.
He then filed suit against the government, and learned that federal authorities had made photocopies of the outside of all the mail he received. That included letters from lawyers, health care providers, and utility companies. It also included postcards and correspondences from friends and family.
“When you know for a fact that you are under surveillance, it is kind of hard to live an everyday sort of lifestyle,” Pickering told KGW. “It can cause a lot of psychological and emotional strain.”