by Bob Barr
Last week it was revealed that the United States Postal Service (USPS) is an active participant in the government-wide effort by the Biden administration to surreptitiously surveil social media postings by American citizens, with the apparent goal of identifying individuals inclined to protest government policies and activities; in other words, people who plan to exercise their First Amendment rights.
The response on Capitol Hill to this news of a special USPS intelligence unit called “iCOP” (Internet Covert Operations Program) secretly surveilling social media usage by citizens, was predictable – Democrats yawned, and House Republicans expressed shock and amazement.
The sad reality is that anyone who has followed government operations ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, knows that every federal, state and local government agency with even the slightest degree of law enforcement power is always looking for ways to gather more information on citizens. This has only become far worse since the Jan. 6 trouble on Capitol Hill.
A brief review of the legal authorities according to which the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) operates reveals that the Service in fact can be employed to investigate far more than mail theft or damage to postal facilities, which had been its long-standing and primary responsibility. For example, the Attorney General of the United States can direct Postal Inspectors to aid in enforcing any “laws of the United States.” All that is needed to send Postal Inspectors off on such missions is a decision by the Attorney General “that violations of such laws have a detrimental effect upon the operations of the Postal Service.”
In other words, according to authority already on the books, the USPIS can investigate whatever the attorney general wants it to investigate, so long as such investigations have something to do with negatively affecting some aspect of Postal Service “operations.” More troubling still, such broad, open-ended investigative power can be given to the USPIS in secret, and the Postal Service need not provide any answers to public inquiries about its surreptitious surveillance. Last week, for example, when asked about the Yahoo News revelations about the iCOP program, the USPIS declared dismissively that it “does not discuss its protocols, investigative methods, or tools.”
On April 22, the day after Yahoo News broke the story on the USPIS social media surveillance program, 32 GOP House members signed a letter to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy demanding to know what was going on with the program. In keeping with the absolute partisanship within which all congressional business is conducted these days, not a single House Democrat signed the letter, notwithstanding that it touches directly on possible violations of citizens’ rights guaranteed by the First Amendment – something the Democrat Party once professed to care about.
Across the Capitol rotunda, also on April 22, members of a Senate committee were questioning three nominees whose names had been submitted by President Biden to serve as members of the USPS Board of Governors. Reflecting the Senate’s lack of interest in social media surveillance by the Postal Service, nary a question was raised about the matter by Republican or Democrat members of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
This disinterest is consistent with how little all but a handful of senators care about the degree to which law enforcement agencies routinely undermine citizens’ privacy rights supposed to be protected by the Bill of Rights. On the House side at least, 32 Republicans cared enough to send a letter of inquiry to the postmaster general.
Unfortunately, if past investigations are any guide, interest in the matter will soon fade and the Postal Service, in conjunction with innumerable other agencies at all levels of government, will settle back to their business as usual of gathering as much information, however they can on the social media and other communications of American citizens.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.