Your Mail- Free for Government Inspection

Careful what you write- Homeland Security may be reading your mail:

A spokesman for the Customs and Border Protection division said he couldn’t speak directly to Goodman’s case but acknowledged that the agency can, will and does open mail coming to U.S. citizens that originates from a foreign country whenever it’s deemed necessary.

“All mail originating outside the United States Customs territory that is to be delivered inside the U.S. Customs territory is subject to Customs examination,” says the CBP Web site. That includes personal correspondence. “All mail means ‘all mail,’” said John Mohan, a CBP spokesman, emphasizing the point.

“This process isn’t something we’re trying to hide,” Mohan said, noting the wording on the agency’s Web site. “We’ve had this authority since before the Department of Homeland Security was created,” Mohan said.

However, Mohan declined to outline what criteria are used to determine when a piece of personal correspondence should be opened, but said, “obviously it’s a security-related criteria.”

Mohan also declined to say how often or in what volume CBP might be opening mail. “All I can really say is that Customs and Border Protection does undertake [opening mail] when it is determined to be necessary,” he said.

Once again, another government practice that is news to me. And, of course, I will be told that the government has long had the authority to do this, that it is necessary to keep me ‘safe,’ and that I really shouldn’t worry about it- just like torture and the Patriot Act, this is vital to our security.

At what point will these people have all the damned tools they need to fight terrorism?

49 replies
  1. 1
    Brian says:

    A fart in a tornado.

  2. 2
    Zifnab says:

    At what point will these people have all the damned tools they need to fight terrorism?

    A camera in every house, a cop at every window, and a jail cell for every US citizen. That should cover it.

  3. 3
    stickler says:

    We don’t have a Ministry of Love yet. But we’re working on the “always been at war with Eastasia” part pretty hard.

    How do you feel about rats?

  4. 4
    fred says:

    “All mail originating outside the United States Customs territory that is to be delivered inside the U.S. Customs territory is subject to Customs examination,”

    This has been true since the beginning of time, or the republic, whichever came first.

    At what point will these people have all the damned tools they need to fight terrorism?

    This, on the other hand, is very apropos.

  5. 5
    Francis says:

    hmmm. There is a huge difference between opening mail, to check the contents of the package, and reading it. The Fourth Amendment has always had a “border” exception, recognizing that the executive, acting through the postmaster, has the right to control our borders by preventing the importation of contraband.

    Now, reading your mail still requires a warrant, if memory serves.

    I recognize that it’s pretty damn hard to tell whether or not the letter has been read (unless you’re arrested based on the contents), but in theory Customs did nothing wrong by simply opening the envelope.

  6. 6
    cd6 says:

    Whoa there John

    Bin Laden reads balloon juice

    You just told al queda not to send terrorist related mailings

    I call high treason on you

  7. 7
    Ancient Purple says:

    Well, since they are opening and potentially reading my mail, all I can say is…

    The sun is red against the velvet duck.

    Repeat.

    The sun is red against the velvet duck.

  8. 8
    EdT says:

    John –

    A better question is…

    “At what point would John Cole say ‘enough is enough’ and entertain the possibility of voting for Democrats?”

  9. 9
    Sojourner says:

    Pssstt… John. This has nothing to do with homeland security. Just ask Dick Nixon. He’ll tell ya.

  10. 10
    Pb says:

    Given what we already know about the NSA spying scandal, what I’d really want to know is if they have a mechanism for routing certain packages into and out of foreign territory at the direction of the government–now that would be far more outrageous.

    Maybe they could set up a post office at a US embassy of a friendly country, for example, or in international waters, or on a bit of land that we just happen to control in Cuba…

  11. 11
    Rob says:

    Color me underwhelmed. As fred said, this has nothing to do with terrorism, or the Bush administration. It always has been , and always will be. My guess is they don’t open regular envelopes much, but John, are you honestly telling me you had “no idea” that a package from overseas was checked, and frequently opened, by Customs?

  12. 12
    The Other Steve says:

    What fucking moron Terrorist would send email or make phone calls that wasn’t in code?

    Sheesh, encryption that would take the NSA a considerable amount of resources to crack is readily available for download off the internet.

    Guys… You gotta spy on the perps by finding ’em and watching them through the window. Yeah, I know… it’s hard work, but it pays off.

  13. 13

    How old are you, anyway?

  14. 14
    Sojourner says:

    Guys… You gotta spy on the perps by finding ‘em and watching them through the window. Yeah, I know… it’s hard work, but it pays off.

    That’s not nearly as much fun as spying on Christiane Amanpour

  15. 15
    Gabe says:

    I don’t think he has ever cared about civil liberties – he sees his job as protecting us, not protecting our liberties.

  16. 16
    Mason says:

    I’ve assumed that any international packages I’ve sent or received via the USPS may be opened. Says as much on the customs forms.

  17. 17
    srv says:

    Predictions:

    By 2010:
    – 75% of all K-12 schools will have cameras in each classroom
    – Domestic abuse parole criteria will require 24/7 cameras/audio in the home
    – Several states will require all paroled criminals to wear GPS tracking devices with last 24-hour audio recording
    – It will be illegal to enter any federal or state building w/o an RFID tagged ID.
    – Visa/Mastercard will create databases for in-store/mall tracking of RFID equipped credit cards (no purchases necessary)

    By 2015:
    – All US autos will be equipped with GPS/time telemetry recorders. Gas stations will be equipped to download the information for processing (milage tax, speed violations).

  18. 18
    Slide says:

    Once again, another government practice that is news to me.

    The more one knows about what this government is doing the more one much grow concerned. Where are the modern day Patrick Henry’s? Not in the Republican party that is for sure.

    Give me liberty or give me death.

  19. 19
    Nash says:

    Even Osama has to be allowed to return the “do not send this month’s selection” to the Paperback Book Club. Otherwise, his cave just fills up with boxes containing “The Tao of Pooh” and reissues of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and “Little Dorrit.”

  20. 20
    Pooh says:

    “The Tao of Pooh”

    Careful…

  21. 21
    RonB says:

    Bin Laden reads balloon juice

    You just told al queda not to send terrorist related mailings

    I call high treason on you

    Yeah, but thanks to the New York Slimes, now he’s going to stop using this mode of communication anyway.

  22. 22
    Al Maviva says:

    Under current law, the Customs Service is empowered to search, without a warrant, inbound mail handled by the United States Postal Service and packages and letters handled by private carriers such as Federal Express and the United Parcel Service. This “border exception” to the Fourth Amendment derives from the traditional authority of the sovereign to protect its borders against inbound contraband and to collect duties on inbound freight.

    That’s the ACLU’s discussion of the existing law, here: http://www.aclu.org/racialjust.....11025.html

    How does a free country, a country with a conscience (self described), that’s not a burgeoning police state like ours handle incoming international mail?

    How do we process the mail?

    Our customs officers screen and examine the mail to make sure the goods comply with the various laws and requirements, including those of other government departments, that apply to imported goods.

    We may have to open a mail item to examine it properly. The Customs Act gives us the authority to open any mail that weighs more than 30 grams. Before we can open mail that weighs 30 grams or less, we need permission from you, or from the exporter. To get your permission, we send you a letter telling you that we are holding your item and asking that you allow us to open it for examination. If we do not get your permission to examine the item, we cannot release it to Canada Post for delivery.

    The declaration that the exporter completes must accurately describe the contents of the mail item. To verify the declaration, an officer may open a mail item to ensure the contents match the description given. If there is no declaration attached, or if the declaration is incomplete, customs officers will open the item to determine the nature of the goods. All mail items that customs officers open are clearly marked as “opened by customs.”

    So that’s quite different – they won’t open letters without your permission like Customs does here – Fascists! On the other hand, Candadian Customs won’t release a letter to you that they want to open, until you give them permission to open it. See, it’s much different.

    That’s Canada’s answer, found here: http://www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca/E/p.....051-e.html

    Repeat after me: diminished expectation of privacy at the border. It’s a holdover from the war on terror, circa 1789 – the War on British Terror. Customs is historically granted broad authority by statute to examine things coming into the country, making such laws is one of the Congress’ few actual enumerated powers. The same legal principle governs the search of incoming trucks, rail cars and cargo planes, as well as customs / immigration inspections of inbound persons and their baggage. Only the contents of domestic mail between US persons is constitutionally protected. Want another one that will make you scream, John? The government can read the outside of your envelope and track who you send mail to, and who sends you mail, without a warrant. It’s called a mail cover. There’s no expectation of privacy in the outside of envelopes – surely another grievous tactic in the war on terror.

  23. 23
    Al Maviva says:

    Oh, and Slide, since I see the same non-argument comment from you pretty much every single time I post, here, I’ll save you some time.

    “Al, you fucking liar! You purposely misquoted the Constitution, leaving out both the preamble *and* the 23rd Amendment.

    Pwned!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

    You owe me, pal. I probably saved you an hour’s worth of hard thinking just now.

  24. 24
    Slide says:

    Al Maviva calm down, calm down. I know you are a little gun shy after I pretty must destroyed your previous posts on the FISA statutes. Remember everyone, AL here was trying to convince us all that warrants werent’ required under the FISA statute. A laughable argument that NOBODY is making. But the little apologist tried his darnest to do the president’s bidding. Such a loyal little mindless soldier. Heck of a job Al.

  25. 25
    tbrosz says:

    I worked for the Post Office as part of a student program in college. The security was almost psychotic as far as protecting the mail was concerned. The whole workfloor had enclosed observation walkways up by the ceiling, with two-way mirror windows or slits for inspectors to watch us work and make sure nobody screwed with the mail.

    Although I didn’t work that department, I heard that mail with customs stickers could be opened (some, not all), but that there had to be two official inspectors present to prevent funny business.

  26. 26
    Mr Furious says:

    This isn’t a shock to me. I would have assumed some basic “random” or “suspicious” allowances for inspecting foreign mail.

    Though, much like when my bag gets searched when I fly, I expect to be notified when it happens. That can be a stamp on the envelope or an insert alerting me that my package has been inspected, and then the letter makes it’s way to my box.

    Reading my mail, as noted above is different. I’m not living in a fucking prison (last I checked), and that is bullshit. Once you are reading my mail, pigs, you might as well photocopy it and put it in my secret file along with my keystroke recordings…

  27. 27
    Brian says:

    Maybe they can read all the credit card offers I get for me and sum up which ones have the best interest rates. I wouldn’t mind that at all.

  28. 28

    EdT,

    I can’t speak for John, and I absentee voted for Kerry in protest (TX was not really in play), but I would be a bit more inclined to believe the Democrats want to preserve our civil liberties if most of the powers Bush is claiming were powers that the Clinton justice department had been asking for for most of the 90’s.

    There’s a reason why most of the provisions of the USA PATRIOT act were all drawn up and sitting around well before 9/11. They’d been sitting idle ever since the Republican congress refused to grant them to Clinton.

  29. 29
    Mason says:

    (Hell, John Kerry himself wrote some of what became the Patriot Act..)

  30. 30
    jg says:

    There’s a reason why most of the provisions of the USA PATRIOT act were all drawn up and sitting around well before 9/11. They’d been sitting idle ever since the Republican congress refused to grant them to Clinton.

    I didn’t know that. I’m not sure if it means anything because I’d bet its the stuff that was added to it in response to 9/11 that’s got people upset.

  31. 31
    Perry Como says:

    Mason Says:

    (Hell, John Kerry himself wrote some of what became the Patriot Act..)

    Bingo. These power grabs are actually the ideas of the Democrats. Is it President Bush’s fault that Congress passed the PATRIOT Act? Is it President Bush’s fault that Congress authorized the AUMF?

    Of course not. The Democrats laid a trap for President Bush. They crafted the PATRIOT Act, waiting to spring it on President Bush when he was elected. Then to top it off, they authorized Him to use military force before they were ousted from power (permanently). They gave Him all of these powers and now they are trying to criticize Him for using them!

  32. 32
    Mason says:

    I don’t know why the christ I even bother to read the comments around here anymore.

    From the horse’s mouth:

    Fought Global Terrorism. John Kerry introduced critical legislation for cracking down on international laundering of terrorist funds. He was one of the key architects of anti-money-laundering provisions in the Patriot Act designed to deny financing for terrorists, and he has consistently used these provisions to press the Bush administration to crack down on terrorist financing activities by Syria and Saudi Arabia.

  33. 33
    StupidityRules says:

    Mason, perhaps you should read some more about which parts of the Patriot Act that people object to.

    It’s not the anti-money-laundering provisions.

  34. 34
    Perry Como says:

    It’s not the anti-money-laundering provisions.

    Can you prove that the warrantless wiretaps by the NSA are not being done on money laundering terrorists? Can you prove that the extraordinary renditions are not done on money laundering terrorists? Can you prove that we are not torturing money laundering terrorists? Can you prove that Jose Padilla was not actually a money launderer, necessitating his detention?

  35. 35
    Al Maviva says:

    >>>It’s not the anti-money-laundering provisions.

    That’s not true at all. One of PATRIOT’s more hotly contested portions is the money laundering section. It lowers the threshold reporting requirements for “financial institutions” to report transactions to the Department of Treasury’s “FINCEN” tracking section from $10,000 to $3,000, and also imposes a “rule of reason” requiring “financial institutions” to report any transactions that might reasonably be viewed to be part of an illegal activity. The reason for it is that the 9/11 attackers were funded by a series of $8,000 – $9,000 wire transfers, which the feds believe was a conscious exploitation of the old $10,000 threshold. Under $10k, there was no reporting to treasury. Now $3k, or a suspicious pattern of transfers (like $2,900 being wired to an off-shore bank on the Bahamas on a regular basis, or $2,500 being wired from Pakistan to the US on a regular basis, and the financial institution has to report the transactions to Treasury.

    There is also a lot of contention over what constitutes a “financial institution.” Banks are covered as they were before, but savings and loans, wire services (e.g. Western Union) and maybe car dealerships and law firms (due to the cash handling nature of client fund arrangements) may fall under the law. I’m not sure where the regulations are on this – Treasury has been regulating one economic sector at a time, and was having trouble getting the big proposed reg out the door the last time I checked, roughly two years ago, due to “industry” opposition. I’m not sure how “industry” it is though, when Citibank is standing arm-in-arm with the ACLU. Not my area of the law, so I’m not up to date on it, but I know enough about it to know that the money laundering bits are highly controversial with those affected, due in part to the general intrusion, and due also to the fact that the reporting process can be used to monitor all sorts of things outside terrorism, including drug money laundering or just the ordinary conduct of business.

  36. 36
    Pb says:

    Al Maviva,

    the reporting process can be used to monitor all sorts of things outside terrorism, including drug money laundering

    Sounds good to me. Anyhow, I object more to Bush’s executive orders on the subject, complete with a comically overbroad definition of ‘terrorism’.

  37. 37
    SmilingPolitely says:

    What does it mean when we discover that everything that Oliver Stone has been saying is… TRUE?!?

  38. 38
    Stormy70 says:

    Another jump to an conclusion post. Much like the fact that criminalizing sexual harassment on the web is call for a general freakout.

  39. 39

    Perry,

    I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you’re not being deliberately obtuse, but my point was simple. That the Democrats care any more than the Republicans is simply nonsense. Clinton’s justice department had been asking for most of the powers that Democrats scream constitute an unprecedented assault on civil liberties by the Bush administration.

    Clinton’s justice department wanted these powers both for fighting Al Qaeda and our own home grown Nazis. But for some reason when Bush seeks (and gets) similar powers, it becomes an assault on our civil liberties the likes of which have never been seen.

    Am I to assume that as soon as the Democrats cease to be in the opposition that they will not seek the same powers that they sought the last time they were running things?

    There are a very few politicians on both sides of the aisle who consistently vote on principle (like Ron Paul, f’rex). As for the rest, feh.

  40. 40
    Remfin says:

    Al Maviva we know for a fact the “financial institution” stuff was inserted by the Ashcroft team. That’s not any of Kerry’s problem…well it is his problem in that he, like 95% of Congress from both parties, was bamboozled by how Bush’s DoJ ran the final vote (voting sight-unseen on a bill they did not know had been massively changed)

    Saying it’s from the horse’s mouth doesn’t change the fact that he is not claiming what you’re claiming (it even says he’s “ONE of the”), and even if he was claiming what you are claiming it would be a typical politician overreach – the idea that since you were the first to suggest ANY money-laundering language meant you get to claim credit for the good parts/your parts, which is a far cry from saying it all was your idea

  41. 41
    moflicky says:

    required reading for democrats, written by a bush-hating liberal democrat.

    http://www.time.com/time/colum.....37,00.html

  42. 42
    Al Maviva says:

    Remfin, thanks. That’s a good example of why it’s normally useless to try to debate anything around here.

    The only thing I discussed was whether or not the financial institution reporting requirements of PATRIOT were controversial, in order to rebut a plainly erroneous statement of fact that they are uncontroversial. I didn’t blame Kerry (somebody else did), I didn’t blame Ashcroft (somebody else did), I stayed on point and spoke to the merits. Your efforts to meet my argument with straight up partisanship, show me that it’s useless to even bother. I should simply retreat to “I love Bush and hate your guy.” Honest efforts at making a fair argument on the merits simply don’t register around here. It’s as if many people here suffered from reverse dog hearing – things said in any tone below a high pitched shriek just don’t seem to register.

    You are now in the ridiculous position making an argument that John Kerry is a Great Guy, John Ashcroft is an asshole, and that argument is somehow supposed to refute my statement that the financial monitoring / money laundering portions of PATRIOT are controversial. That’s like solving a math question with the answer “monkeys.” Fine, I’ll concede you win, the answer to the question “are the financial monitoring portions of PATRIOT controversial?” is “John Ashcroft is a rotten SOB.” Nicely done, you really kicked my ass there, Remfin.

  43. 43
    Zifnab says:

    In fact, liberal Democrats are about as far from the American mainstream on these issues as Republicans were when they invaded the privacy of Terri Schiavo’s family in the right-to-die case last year.

    But there is a difference. National security is a far more important issue, and until the Democrats make clear that they will err on the side of aggressiveness in the war against al-Qaeda, they will probably not regain the majority in Congress or the country

    Ah. The old “there’s nothing more important than terrorism” arguement. I also appreciate how Joe Klein also completely sidesteps the primary issue – that the President has failed to address the Nixonite concerns of tapping communications that have not crossed foreign soil.

    When a government agency is “going after the terrorists” you can hardly argue with them. But only until you become a potential “terrorist” and must be constantly survailed. There have been a number of Wars going on in this country for the past thirty years. We’ve had wars on drugs and wars on poverty, culture wars, terror wars, and wars on Christmas. I’ve yet to see us win any of them.

    Before Democrats go rallying in behind a war on Al-Queda, I’d like to know they have a clear plan in mind. I want to know when the war started and when the war will be considered “done”. And I want to know that the war on Al-Queda won’t be their only concern when medicare dries up and social security buckles under excessive government spending and the education system becomes neglected and forgotten.

    Because terrorism is a problem, but it’s not the only problem in our country. And I don’t want to be put on some No-Fly watchlist because the NSA decided to read my mail while I was concerned with other things.

  44. 44
    Ancient Purple says:

    That’s not true at all. One of PATRIOT’s more hotly contested portions is the money laundering section.

    Contested by whom? Certainly not hordes of liberals.

    In all the discussions I have had or been privvy to, this section has been mentioned maybe once. It may be one of the more hotly contested portions by someone, but it pales in comparison to the idiotic and very controversial provision that allows law enforcement to storm into a library and demand a list of the books I have checked out. Then, to top it off, the library staff is forbidden to tell me that my list of reading materials has been turned over to the DOJ or FBI.

    I have no problems with the money-laundering provision and I think you would be hard-pressed to find most people opposed to the reporting reduction from 10K to 3K.

    However, when the government demands my reading list, you better believe I am going to be quite vocal about this invasion of my privacy.

  45. 45
    Stormy70 says:

    However, when the government demands my reading list, you better believe I am going to be quite vocal about this invasion of my privacy.

    But have they? Who has had their reading lists read?

  46. 46
    Kirk Spencer says:

    Stormy,

    “Who has had their reading lists read?” is your question. The answer is that those who know can’t or won’t tell, so we don’t know.

    There are at most two people in the library who will know if such a list was requested under USAPATRIOT. That’s the director and, if necessary to get access, the person who runs the computers. Should these two individuals tell anyone, they can be charged with severe felonies tied to the fact that we’re at “war” (quotes due to lack of clear declaration, not scare quotes). Arguably (as our library’s attorney explained) the government would have at least the beginning of a case by which to declare the individual an enemy combatant.

    We (yes, I’m a librarian) can’t tell without going to jail. But because we haven’t made such a claim the problem doesn’t exist. I would hope the catch-22 is apparent to all.

    At this time there are several attempts going on to remove the gag order on libraries – at least to significantly reduce the duration. If such a gag order is lifted and you hear of no cases, your point is made. I am willing to bet, however, that if the change is made you’ll have your cases. Set aside “industry gossip”, I’ll make my reasoning clear in another fashion.

    If the government has never used this, why is it fighting so hard to keep it?

  47. 47
    Al Maviva says:

    In all the discussions I have had or been privvy to, this section has been mentioned maybe once.

    Just because a tree fall isn’t heard in the Balloon Juice comments section, doesn’t mean the tree didn’t fall. Yeah, the librarian thing sure upsets blog commenters in these parts. But the people who steer the country’s economy have big problems with the money-laundering portions of PATRIOT, so-called, due to the heightened and somewhat vague reporting requirements the Act imposes on businesses that handle money. You might have problems with it too if you knew the extent of it. It’s somewhat of an inside baseball fight so I’m not shocked that it’s off your radar, it’s tricky to understand the details of it and it’s not a media friendly issue. But I’m not kidding, when you have the ACLU, the American Bar Association, Citibank and First Union and Merrill Lynch and the folks representing car dealers and jewelers and consumer electronics retailers all bitching about a particular law, it is controversial. If you talk to libertarian activists who have a problem with the drug war – I’m not talking the hemp T-shirt types but lobbyists or CATO types who don’t worry so much about pissed off librarians but who get really upset about substantial changes to federal law that effect a lot of people –you might hear about the larger negative effects of this increased monitoring. It’s a big enough change in the law that Treasury has had problems rolling out comprehensive regs and has put them out piecemeal, dealing with one sector of the economy at a time. The local bar here in D.C. offers regular update on the evolving and increasingly strict reporting requirements.

    Pooh, help a brother out here. I’m sure you’ve heard about this mess, I believe Pittsburgh has a substantial banking community and I’m guessing it creates a stir there, as it does here.

    And if you are all freaked out about your local public library – how often do you use that? – then how do you feel knowing that every financial transaction you make involving more than $3000 gets reported to the Treasury Department’s enforcement folks, and that if you make regular cash deposits below that amount, that the bank might be reporting that too? In a way it’s hard to make a stink about it since it was tailored around AQ’s methods of transferring funds around the globe, which quite clearly were structured to avoid automatic reporting requirements. But still, it’s highly invasive – your neighbors and close friends can’t have access to your financial dealings, but Uncle Sam can.

    Eh, maybe it’s not so controversial seeming to you. While screaming librarians make for good headlines, I find this quieter and more widespread intrusion into my business to be of much greater concern.

  48. 48
    Ancient Purple says:

    Just because a tree fall isn’t heard in the Balloon Juice comments section, doesn’t mean the tree didn’t fall.

    Right, Al. Because I couldn’t possibly have had conversations with people outside of the Balloon Juice comments section.

    Obviously, you are as dense as the tree that fell.

  49. 49
    Machs says:

    Has anyone seen the stunning development of John Kerry’s involvement with the NSA?

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