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How the Postal Service is helping law enforcement monitor snail mail

October 28, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
An internal audit of the U.S. Postal Service found that it approved nearly 50,000 requests from law enforcement to monitor personal mail. Gwen Ifill sits down with Ron Nixon of The New York Times, who has been investigating this story for more than a year.

GWEN IFILL: As worries grow about technology, surveillance and privacy, it turns out the government is watching your snail mail too. A new report from The New York Times finds the U.S. Postal Service approved nearly 50,000 requests from law enforcement agencies last year to monitor mail.

Reporter Ron Nixon has been digging into that for more than a year. And he joins me now.

Fifty thousand requests, how many of those actually were satisfied by the feds?

RON NIXON, The New York Times: That’s just it. We don’t know a whole lot about this program beyond the numbers.

The Postal Service and the Postal Inspection Service, their law enforcement wing has been very secretive about this program.

GWEN IFILL: Did the program arise after 9/11 or had it previously existed?

RON NIXON: No, this program actually has been around since about the late 1800s. So, it’s a centuries-old program.

What they have done is added the technical prowess to the program, but mail covers as a whole is this very old law enforcement technique.

GWEN IFILL: You call it mail covers.


GWEN IFILL: Describe what that — what you mean by that, because that’s not actually opening your mail and looking at it.

RON NIXON: No, it’s not actually opening your mail, then into it.

What this is, is basically metadata of snail mail. They copy everything that’s on the outside of the packages and letters. And that lets me know who you’re communicating with, your banking information, credit card, that kind of thing. So, — but it is not opening the mail. You need a warrant for that.

GWEN IFILL: So, it seems pretty low-tech in some respects.


But they also have very high-tech — they have massive banks of computers that take pictures of every single letter and package that comes through. And they do utilize that for law enforcement purposes at times as well.

GWEN IFILL: Is that the reason they take — they record everything, or is just the side effect of what…

RON NIXON: It’s a side effect. You have this technology that can do this thing, so they use it in limited ways for law enforcement purposes.

But the main purpose of, it is actually to deliver the mail, process and deliver the mail.

GWEN IFILL: So, explain to us how it works.

RON NIXON: So, say I’m a law enforcement agency and I’m investigating you. I go to the Postal Inspection Service saying, hey, I have reason to believe that Ms. Ifill is guilty of something or illegally running drugs.

I send a request to the Postal Inspection Service. They look at it. They look, say, yes, there’s legitimate reason. They sign off on it and then they start to take down all the information on the letters and packages that you are both sending and receiving so they can track who you’re communicating with and again, as I mentioned before, banking information, property, that kind of thing.

GWEN IFILL: Has it successfully curbed illegal activity in ways that you can cite me some examples?


There’s been a number of examples that I have written about before. They have busted a prostitution ring. They have busted drug rings. They have found fugitives. So it’s a legitimate law enforcement tool that everybody from the FBI to the Arlington County police would use.

GWEN IFILL: So, why — you spent couple years almost working on this.


GWEN IFILL: Why was it so difficult to get to the bottom of it?

RON NIXON: Well, because it’s a program that is — they didn’t want to talk about a lot.

We filed several Freedom of Information requests to find out the scope of this, and they still have not released to us how many times the FBI has requested mail covers, for instance. So, it’s a program that they don’t talk about a lot. And they have actually…

GWEN IFILL: In the interest of national security?

RON NIXON: In the interest of national security, but also because it’s a law enforcement technique. And they don’t want to reveal exactly how it works.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Let’s do the flip side.

There are things that they have stopped or they have been able to find out about.


GWEN IFILL: Are there ways that this program has been misused?


We did find couple of examples where the program apparently appears to be misused. There was — in Maricopa County, Arizona, there’s a sheriff and a local county attorney who…

GWEN IFILL: Joe Arpaio?

RON NIXON: Joe Arpaio…

RON NIXON: … and the local county attorney there launched an investigation of various council members.

And one of them was Councilwoman Mary Rose Wilcox. And she just got a million-dollar settlement for what the — a panel for the Supreme Court, state Supreme Court there said appear to be a politically motivated investigation.

They used mail covers to track who she was doing business with and then invaded the business.

GWEN IFILL: So, for political purposes, it was used to target someone, allegedly?

RON NIXON: Allegedly.

GWEN IFILL: Allegedly.

RON NIXON: Allegedly, right.

GWEN IFILL: Now, here is once again — and I’m going back and forth because I’m curious about the most famous incident of Postal Service — illegal things happening through the Postal Service is anthrax or any kind of substance being sent to public officials. We spent a lot of time talking about that.


GWEN IFILL: Is this something which is also used for that purpose?

RON NIXON: Yes, there’s a program that they call the mail isolation tracking control system that was used to find Shannon Richardson, the actress had sent ricin-laced letters to President Obama and former New York Mayor Bloomberg.

They used this to track her mail specifically to a facility that she had mailed it from, and she had tried to blame it on her husband. And they were able to prove based on when she sent the letters that it was her, in fact.

GWEN IFILL: So this is — this is — obviously, there are pluses and there are minuses.


GWEN IFILL: Is there some way in which this compares in any way to the NSA surveillance techniques we talk so much about?

RON NIXON: I think, in terms of scope, it’s much, much smaller in scope, in that it can’t scoop up as much information as the NSA does, of course, because we use the phones much more than we use letters.


RON NIXON: And, as mail has declined, we are using it less and less. But, still, law enforcement officials consider this a very important tool.

GWEN IFILL: Ron Nixon of The New York Times, thank you.

RON NIXON: Thank you. Thanks for having me.