28 October 2014, NYT: Report Reveals Wider Tracking of Mail in U.S.
28 May 2014, USPS: OIG: Postal Inspection Service Mail Covers Program Audit Report (fewer redactions) (PDF)
28 May 2014, USPS: OIG: Postal Inspection Service Mail Covers Program Audit Report (PDF)
AUG. 13, 2015
Copy of Postal Service Audit Shows Extent of Mail Surveillance
By RON NIXON
WASHINGTON -- In what experts say is the first acknowledgment of how the United States Postal Service's mail surveillance program for national security investigations is used, the service's internal watchdog found that inspectors failed to follow key safeguards in the gathering and handling of classified information.
The overall program, called mail covers, allows postal employees working on behalf of law enforcement agencies to record names, return addresses and other information from the outside of letters and packages before they are delivered to the home of a person suspected of criminal activity.
The information about national security mail covers, amid heated public debate over the proper limits on government surveillance, was contained in an audit conducted by the Postal Service's inspector general last year. Although much of the information was public, sections about the national security mail covers were heavily redacted. An unredacted copy of the report  was provided to a security researcher in response to a Freedom of Information Act request this year. The researcher, who goes by a single legal name, Sai, shared the report with The New York Times.
In a June 8 letter to Sai, the Postal Inspection Service -- the Postal Service's law enforcement arm -- said it could not "confirm or deny the existence" of the national security mail cover program, even though it was mentioned in the audit.
"The Postal Service does not provide public comment on matters which could potentially involve national security interests," Paul J. Krenn, a spokesman, said in an email. The Postal Inspection Service did tell the auditors that it had begun training its employees on handling classified materials.
Experts said the unredacted report was the first to provide public details, although minimal, about the national security mail covers. The number of requests appeared small, about 1,000 from 2011 to 2013, and the report did not say which federal agencies made them.
It did disclose that the F.B.I., the Internal Revenue Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Homeland Security were the largest overall users of mail covers. Those agencies declined to provide The Times with data on their use of mail covers in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed last year.
The redacted audit  was posted in May 2014 on the website of the Postal Service's Office of Inspector General, even though Postal Service managers said the report should be exempt from public disclosure because it could compromise investigations. The inspector general disagreed.
Kevin R. Kosar, a former analyst at the Congressional Research Service who worked on postal issues, said he found it surprising that the Office of Inspector General redacted the information about the national security mail covers in the first place.
"I think it's symptomatic of our overclassification of information in the government," he said. "There is nothing here that compromises any law enforcement activities. In fact, there is very little information."
Privacy advocates said the findings about the national security mail covers were hardly surprising given that the public report last year found that the Postal Inspection Service had failed to provide adequate oversight.
In addition to raising privacy concerns, the audit questioned the Postal Service's efficiency and accuracy in handling mail cover requests. Many requests were processed late, the audit said, which delayed surveillance, and computer errors caused the same tracking number to be assigned to different requests.
"I think they should have to get warrants to get this information," said Frank Askin, a law professor at the Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic who, as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, successfully sued the F.B.I. nearly 40 years ago after the agency monitored the mail of a 15-year-old New Jersey student. "Law enforcement agencies shouldn't just be able to go to the Postal Service and ask them to track someone's communications. It raises serious First Amendment issues."
The inspector general also found that the Postal Inspection Service did not have "sufficient controls" in place to ensure that its employees followed the agency's policies in handling the national security mail covers.
According to the audit, about 10 percent of requests did not include the dates for the period covered by surveillance. Without the dates in the files, auditors were unable to determine if the Postal Service had followed procedures for allowing law enforcement agencies to monitor mail for a specific period of time.
Additionally, 15 percent of the inspectors who handled the mail covers did not have the proper nondisclosure agreements on file for handling classified materials, records that must be maintained for 50 years. The agreements would prohibit the postal workers from discussing classified information.
And the inspector general found that in about 32 percent of cases, postal inspectors did not include, as required, the date on which they visited facilities where mail covers were being processed. In another 32 percent of cases, law enforcement agencies did not return documents to the Postal Inspection Service's Office of Counsel, which handles the national security mail covers, within the prescribed 60 days after a case was closed.
The mail covers program is more than a century old, but law enforcement officials consider it a powerful investigative tool. They say that the program's deceptively old-fashioned method of collecting data provides a wealth of information about the businesses and associates of its targets, and that it can lead to bank and property records and even to accomplices. Opening mail requires a warrant.
The Times reported last year  that there had been abuses of the mail cover surveillance program. Interviews and court records showed that the program had been used by a county attorney and sheriff in Arizona to investigate a political opponent and to monitor privileged communications between lawyers and their clients, a practice not allowed under postal regulations. The county attorney was later disbarred, in part because of the investigation.
"Insufficient controls could hinder the Postal Inspection Service's ability to conduct effective investigations, lead to public concerns over privacy of mail and harm the Postal Service's brand," the audit concluded.