PORTLAND, Ore. — There's a lot of attention on the government’s high-tech surveillance of data and email, but a KGW investigation found the U.S. Postal Service has been quietly monitoring the mail of thousands of Oregonians.
A little-known surveillance program called “mail covers” allows postal workers to record information from the outside of every letter that comes or goes from a particular address. The information is then turned over to the law enforcement agency that requested it.
Unlike other government surveillance programs like wiretaps, the use of mail covers does not require a judge’s approval. The program has been around for more than a century.
The investigation found that over the past decade, law enforcement asked for mail surveillance to be conducted on 3,114 Oregonians.
Nationwide, the USPS received 88,917 requests from local and federal law enforcement -- an average of 8,891 a year -- to monitor Americans. This does not include requests made by the Postal Inspection Service or national security investigations.
Most people had no idea they were secretly being monitored.
Records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act showed the requests came from a variety of state and federal agencies including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, U.S. State Department and U.S. Marshals Service. Local police and sheriff’s offices also called on postal workers to help to snoop.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the agency’s investigative arm, submitted the most requests for surveillance of Oregon residents with 1,666 cases from 2005 to 2015.
One of the targets of the mail cover program was former Oregon resident Leslie James Pickering.
Former Oregonian finds proof of surveillance
“Most people don’t even know about it,” said Pickering, who now runs a bookstore in Buffalo, New York.
In September 2012, Pickering discovered he was the target of the surveillance program after finding an odd-looking note misplaced in his mail.
The handwritten card was marked “confidential.” It included directions for postal workers to “show all mail to supv (supervisor) for copying prior to going out on the street.”
“When you know for a fact that you are under surveillance, it is kind of hard to live an everyday sort of lifestyle,” said Pickering. “It can cause a lot of psychological and emotional strain.”
More than a decade ago, Pickering lived in Portland, Oregon. He was a spokesperson for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group labeled as eco-terrorists by the FBI.
Pickering filed a lawsuit against various government agencies, seeking access to information about mail covers and other surveillance conducted on him.
“I think this is a horrible breach of an individual’s right to privacy,” said Pickering’s lawyer, Michael Kuzma.
Court documents show federal agents photocopied the outside of letters sent to Leslie James Pickering, including utility bills, postcards, voter information, legal correspondence and letters from health care providers.
“When you are able to review a person’s incoming mail, you learn a lot about that person,” said Kuzma. “What his or her political beliefs are, what groups he or she may contribute to and so on.”
Mail covers: Powerful investigative tool
The number of law enforcement agencies requesting mail surveillance has declined over the past decade, but mail covers remain a powerful tool for investigators, and one with little red tape.
Opening mail requires a warrant, but mail covers require far less.
“I probably used them in my career a couple of dozen times,” said retired FBI Special Agent George Heuston. “You had to fill out a form and take it to the postmaster along with a very small synopsis about what you are after.”
The surveillance requests are granted for 30 days, but can be extended for up to 120 days.
Information gleaned from the outside of an envelope, like the return address, dates and postal markings, can be useful to investigators working espionage, terrorism and foreign counterintelligence cases, explained Heuston.
“All of those things were quite informative in a case where you were trying to piece together relationships and links between and among different people,” said Heuston.
But a 2014 federal audit showed the USPS didn’t always follow proper protocol while running the mail covers program.
The audit found 21 percent of mail covers were approved without a postal inspector or manager’s approval. Thirteen percent were not adequately justified or correctly documented.
The records produced for KGW under FOIA do not include the names of those being monitored, their address or an explanation of why their mail was monitored.
“The government does not want people knowing that they are the target of the mail cover program,” explained Mat dos Santos, legal director for the ACLU of Oregon. “So there is really no effective way to find out whether you are or have been the target of the mail cover program.”
All mail now recorded
Generally, court challenges to mail covers have been rejected because judges ruled there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for information on the outside of an envelope. This has cleared the way for a more expansive mail surveillance program: the Mail Isolation, Control, and Tracking (MICT) program.
That automated program photographs the exterior of every single letter processed in the United States and allows the Postal Service to retrace the path of all mail. It was created after anthrax attacks in late 2001 killed five people.
“It’s obviously covering lots and lots of innocent people who have absolutely no criminal activity,” said dos Santos.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service declined KGW’s request for an interview and suggested questions be submitted though another FOIA request.
In 2014, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe defended the MICT program before a U.S. House subcommittee and said there was no big database of images.
“Safety is the ultimate goal of MICT, not ‘surveillance,’ although the path of a contaminated mail piece can be relevant for law enforcement purposes as well,” wrote Donahoe. “The Postal Service does not monitor the mail of its customers and it does not maintain any system or program of ‘surveillance.’”
Critics say mail surveillance combined with other forms of monitoring creates an unsettling big-brother situation in America.
“It’s not just what you post on Facebook or Twitter, not just the phone calls you make, not just the mail you send. It’s all of them,” said dos Santos. “Government is using every kind of channel possible to track our communications and that is pretty frightening.”