First Class mess

“You don’t write, you don’t call. What have I done wrong?” Nothing, dear – except that the White House may not like what needs to be said. If you have any interest in news, it was obvious last week that a signing statement attached to fresh postal reform legislation has set the cat among the pigeons. The president has asserted his authority to open your First Class mail, albeit “in exigent circumstances.”

Understandably, the media, lawyers, politicians and the American Civil Liberties Union are upset. So are many concerned citizens. This White House has issued at least 750 signing statements, mainly presidential instructions to agencies on implementing laws. Indeed, President Bush has issued more signing statements than all the previous 42 presidents combined. Some suspect that each signing statement is a cover for a change in policy.

What this issue raises – yet again – is national security concerns versus freedoms granted by the Constitution and this nation’s laws. Post offices nationwide currently have the right to open your mail if they suspect a bomb or security issues. They also can open mail that can’t be delivered as addressed to locate a correct address or return address.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 and other federal laws already require prior judicial approval before domestic sealed mail can be opened. Basically, you need warrants to open First Class mail. And given this climate, obtaining warrants is not that difficult. So why the need for a signing statement that reads thus:

“The executive branch shall construe subsection 404(c) of title 39, as enacted by subsection 1010 (e) of the act, which provides for opening an item of a class of mail otherwise sealed against inspection, in a manner consistent, to the maximum extent permissible, with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances, such as to protect human life and safety against hazardous materials, and the need for physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection.”

Take your time to digest that sentence. But don’t worry too much. As things stand, marketers and mailers aren’t much affected by that statement.

This administration certainly thinks the brouhaha isn’t deserved. White House spokesman Tony Snow was all nonchalance at his daily briefing Jan. 4: “All this is saying is that there are provisions at law for, in exigent circumstances, for such inspections. It has been thus. This is not a change in law, this is not new.”

But there’s no doubt all the talking heads are suspicious about the White House’s interpretation of the words “exigent circumstances.” Let’s make it easy. “Exigent,” as defined by the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary, means “requiring immediate aid or action.” Another meaning is “requiring or calling for much.” An exigent White House?

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