The New York Times got this one wrong. Too eager to pile on to a controversial story with legs, the paper of record went to print without getting all of its facts straight. This has led to a spate of indignation throughout the civil liberties sector of the blogsphere, including a recommended diary today by one of our best writers. The Times went astray when they conflated three things that are completely different and are barely related at all, and wrote about them as if it was all the same.
It is known here that I am a lawyer but even though my work is what provides me with knowledge of and access to the information I am talking about, I do not here represent or speak for any client or employer I have ever had. But I do speak from personal knowledge based upon years of practice involving the Postal Service and Postal Inspection Service. That said, come out into the tall grass if you want to know more about this story.
What I have to say here in not based upon confidential information. This information is a matter of public record. That hardly says that it is well known, though. Let's start with what the Times says about these three things, two Postal Service Programs and the NSA's reported blanket surveillance programs:
Together, the two programs show that snail mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail.The two Postal Service programs are the " longtime surveillance system called mail covers" and the "Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program" (MICT) a more recent innovation implicated in mail crime enforcement involving biological attack. Neither program is secret, though both involve law enforcement and therefore operate under various legal privileges.
It should come to the surprise of no one that there exists something called the Postal Inspection Service (IS), around since 1880, 0r 1772 by the reckoning of some.. It should surprise no one that information regarding mail crimes discovered by the IS sometimes gets referred to the FBI or Justice Department or Homeland Security, or all of them for various law enforcement and information sharing reasons.
Observation and interception of mail is routine pursuant to subpoena, warrant and other lawful process. The Rand Corporation studied the ill effects upon routine enforcement of mail crime like MICT if the "mailbox rule" (the anti-competitive compliment to the "universal service" requirement) were repealed or diluted by Congress, allowing the private sector to cherry pick the Postal Service's revenues. There is, in these cases, probable cause and the 4th Amendment is unoffended as a rule. Since 2001, which the NYT cites as the birth of the MICT, two things at the Postal Service changed. The NYT wants to conflate it all with PRISM, but that isn't the story.
The story is that in 2001, Postal workers died. That event changed the Postal Service and the Postal Inspection Service in significant ways. Those workers died because mad men or mad women decided it would be cool to mail dangerous powders to various prominent folks. From then on, the Postal Service had to become the first line of defense against such attacks. Control of hazardous material and control of its movement through the mail remain an extremely high priority for the Postal Service. And its many unions. The workforce takes these matters seriously because of those deaths. It sent a real wake up call through the organization and its workforce.
But another thing began to grow at that same time. It was the ability, and eventually the necessity, to scan every piece of mail in the system. The Postal Service began to build and implement this capability in the future interest of operating more efficiently, on lower volumes, with a manageable workforce. As mail processing became increasingly automated, universal scanning became technologically unavoidable.
The Postal Service has automation equipment that is unmatched in its ability to sort mail. It has scanners that capture imaging of mail addressing so that its proprietary optical recognition software can recognize and interpret it. Being programmable, this equipment can provide for the capture and divergence of imaging and assist in the tracking of mail. Have you ever watched NCIS? It's sort of like that, but its USPIS.
Big mailers wanted to know where their stuff was. As an organization, the Postal Service wanted to know where all the mail was. And why not? Congress not only makes it get along on its own, but the Postal Service has to pay baksheesh to Congress of $6 Billion every year, if they have it. But Congress won't let USPS reorganize rural service (read red state), or encroach on the big private carriers. What is one of the oldest, continuing institutions in America going to do? Hmnmm?
So, anyway, now the Postal Service has universal imaging. Sometimes, law enforcement is going to grab that stuff, especially as regards to mail crimes like sending poisonous powders. People are going to see pictures of that mail and those pictures are going to show up in investigations. I get that.
But where is the story, NYT. How the hell does this equate to PRISM or any other known or secret NSA whatever? How? How does it even relate to any particular story of law enforcement actually abusing (oh yeah, it happens) its prerogatives in such matters?
Your story is mostly law enforcement folks bragging about how effective it has been for them to intercept mail. Hell, yeah! Especially in mail crimes, dammit. Where it is nigh indispensable. Other than one consultant shooting off his mouth, ex cathedra, how does the NSA figure at all?
Sorry. NYT. FAIL.