Cutting-edge technology has made fears of a surveillance state more palpable to civil libertarians. Yet the U.S. Postal Office at this very moment is helping police agencies engage in a simple, old-fashioned form of monitoring citizen activity, and few Americans realize it is actually happening.
Former CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou has written a column for MintPress News that sheds light on the little-known “mail covers” program. Kiriakou served 23 months in prison for his efforts to expose the CIA’s torture program for terrorism suspects. While incarcerated, he sent his wife a birthday card in the mail. It was returned to him with an “Address Not Known” sticker attached to it. However, another sticker on the card, which he was not meant to see, read, “Do Not Deliver. Hold For Supervisor. Cover Program.” This was how Kiriakou discovered that he was under law enforcement surveillance.
Any citizen can be similarly tracked by police, who do not even need to request a court order to do so. The U.S. Post Office photographs the front and back of every piece of mail it sends out, some 150 billion items per year. A police agency can simply request mail cover tracking from the post office and wait for approval. Police cannot open the mail but can take note of all information to be gleaned from the envelope.
“It’s a treasure trove of information,” James J. Wedick, a former FBI agent told the New York Times in 2014. “Looking at just the outside of letters and other mail, I can see who you bank with, who you communicate with — all kinds of useful information that gives investigators leads that they can then follow up on with a subpoena.”
Wedick, a 34-year-veteran, expressed his concern over the program. “It can be easily abused because it’s so easy to use and you don’t have to go through a judge to get the information. You just fill out a form,” he told the Times.
Television station KGW8 in Portland, Oregon reported on the mail covers program in 2016. It reports that legal challenges to the activity are usually rejected because courts have held there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for what is written on the outside of an envelope. The station noted another worrying facet. “The government does not want people knowing that they are the target of the mail cover program,” Mat dos Santos, legal director for the ACLU of Oregon, told KGW. “So there is really no effective way to find out whether you are or have been the target of the mail cover program.”
An even more disturbing local investigation was conducted by Denver television station KDVR in 2015. It reported that a hidden camera was set up to photograph the license plates and faces of all those dropping off mail at a Golden, Colorado post office. “Within an hour of FOX31 Denver discovering” the hidden camera, the station reported, “the device was ripped from the ground and disappeared.”
This would appear to be a dangerous new dimension to a mail cover program that is already quite alarming. There is serious reason to believe that innocent U.S. citizens are being cataloged for potential crimes they may commit in the future. Civil libertarians see the data mining implicit to the mail cover operations as a dire threat to privacy and personal liberty.
“Part of being a responsible, constitutional government is explaining why it is doing surveillance on its citizens,” Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a watchdog group, told KDVR. “The government should not be collecting this kind of sensitive information. And it is sensitive. It’s about your relationships, your associations with other people, which can be friendship or political or religious. The idea that we give up that privacy simply because we use the U.S. mail is, I think, a silly idea.”
Government police agencies especially like to use the mail cover program to track potential “extremists.” As the New York Times reported in its 2014 article, Leslie James Pickering, a bookstore owner in Buffalo, believes his mail was tracked because he had been a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group, years earlier.
Keep in mind that the definition of “extremist” is commonly applied in the public parlance these days to the likes of anti-vaccine crusaders, pro-life protesters and other ideological activists. The threat of unchecked government surveillance without need of court order should send a shiver down the spines of anyone who has ever used the mail to communicate a political opinion, interact with an advocacy organization, or just converse with family and friends.