ACLU seeks records on mail surveillance

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for National Security Studies filed three Freedom of Information Act requests Jan. 22 seeking the immediate release of records related to President Bush’s authority to search Americans’ mail without a warrant.
The president claimed this authority in a Dec. 20 signing statement that accompanied the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006. The ACLU, CNSS and other groups maintain the act does not change the current protections, which under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 and federal criminal rules require judicial approval before domestic sealed mail can be searched.
Postal inspectors may search a sealed package or envelope when there is immediate danger to life or immediate and substantial danger to property. This occurs, for example, when wires protruding from a package, odors escaping from an envelope or stains on a package indicate the contents may constitute such a danger.
The ACLU and CNSS said that instead of referencing the narrow exception in the postal regulations, the president’s statement suggested he is assuming broader authority to open mail without a warrant.
“[The] postal reform bill … represents the most sweeping reforms to the [USPS] in decades, but does absolutely nothing to alter the protections of privacy and civil liberties provided by the Constitution and other federal laws,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME, said in a statement Jan. 4. “The circumstances and procedures under which the government may search sealed mail are well-defined.”
The U.S. Postal Service also issued a statement Jan. 4.
“As has been the longstanding practice, First Class mail is protected from unreasonable search and seizure when in postal custody,” said Thomas Day, senior vice president of government relations. “Nothing in the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act changes this protection. The president is not exerting any new authority.”
The FoIA requests were filed with the USPS, the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. They seek any regulations, policies, procedures, practices or guidance from 2001 to the present concerning warrant-less searches of mail originating within the United States. The ACLU and CNSS are seeking statistical data and any information on whether the government has authorized warrant-less searches; who is allowed to conduct such searches; actual or potential violations of policies on warrant-less searches; and legal analysis on the constitutionality of warrant-less searches.

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