Tracking the Postal Surveillance System

Mail handlers in Virginia. The Postal Service approved nearly 50,000 requests last year to track the mail of Americans.Credit Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

Last year, Ron Nixon discovered a small-business owner whose mail was being monitored by the United States Postal Service. After looking deeper, he realized that the snail-mail monitoring program is more common than he thought. Mr. Nixon describes the year-long reporting process. He also spoke to WNYC’s The Takeaway about the subject this morning.

The idea for a story on the Postal Service’s century’s old mail cover program, in which all the information on the outside of letters and packages are recorded for law enforcement purposes, actually started over a year ago. I was discussing the government’s mass surveillance programs with colleagues in the Washington bureau and looking for those beyond the National Security Agency’s well-known program, which was in the news at the time.

I had heard about a case in Buffalo where a book store owner had found a card attached to his mail telling letter carriers to copy all the information on the outside of his letters and packages before delivering them. There was also a mention in a court filing of how the Postal Service surveillance program had played a role in catching Shannon Richardson, an actress who had sent ricin-laced letters to President Barack Obama and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. With these examples I was able to write a front-page article for The Times last year, but I wanted to know more.

Shortly after the story ran I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Postal Service for details about the surveillance program, such as information on the number of mail cover requests it gets from law enforcement agencies. I wanted to take a deeper look at a program that, while not as extensive as those at the N.S.A.’s, is still a major part of America’s national security apparatus.

To my surprise, the agency denied our request citing “privacy.” The Times filed an appeal arguing that government agencies can’t claim privacy for summary information. The agency sent a letter back saying it agreed and that it had made a mistake in claiming privacy. But it came back with another denial saying the release of the information would reveal law enforcement techniques. Again, we appealed the decision to deny our request.

The Postal Service then granted limited access and provided us with the number of mail cover requests from some agencies. But it declined to release information from others like the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Postal Service based the denial on a process called consultation, which is allowed under FOIA. Consultation is when an agency locates a record that contains information of interest to another agency. The original agency, in this case the Postal Service, then asks the second agency if it should release information. The F.B.I and the Department of Homeland Security, along with about a half dozen others, asked that the number of mail covers they had requested not be released. This has forced the Times to appeal to each agency independently. Our appeals are still pending.

But as luck would have it, the Postal Service’s own Office of Inspector General produced an audit of the mail cover program this past spring — the first time the office had examined the program — that provided a critical assessment and uncovered numerous problems. The audit found that in many cases the Postal Service approved requests to monitor an individual’s mail without adequately describing the reason or having the proper written authorization. The little-known audit, along with interviews with defense attorneys and Postal Service officials, showed a program that was much larger than previously thought and which seemed to lack proper oversight in some cases.

It remains to be seen what impact our reporting will have on oversight of or changes to the mail cover program. Unlike the N.S.A.’s mass surveillance of phone and Internet records, Congress has not shown any interest in examining the mail covers program.