The “mail cover” is a surveillance and intelligence gathering tool employed by the US Postal Service at the behest of the Justice Department, the FBI, the DEA, the IRS, or other law enforcement agency. You probably have not heard of the mail cover, and that is exactly how the government wants it. The inherent secrecy of law enforcement is compounded by the Postal Service itself, who has asked those agencies for decades to keep it under wraps as much as possible, probably because they don’t want the general public to know they’re in the business of spying on their customers.

A mail cover is ingeniously simple. The Post Office simply takes note of all the information on the outside of each piece of mail the target receives: return address, postmark, etc. The mail is not opened (so they say) and since no search or seizure is being done, merely surveillance, Fourth Amendment protections do not apply. As a result, there is absolutely no judicial supervision of the practice. No warrants are required, merely a request to the Postal Service. Requests have to fit certain requirements and law enforcement agencies have to show that the information they seek will lead to the prosecution of a crime or apprehension of a fugitive. In practice, I would expect that postal officials challenge none of the claims of law enforcement and the information provided by the agencies is exaggerated or even fabricated, as happens quite frequently with the more scrutinized practice of obtaining a warrant.

As a result, mail covers are probably rampantly abused. In 2000, there were 14,000 of them conducted, and the numbers are growing over past years. Many people will never know they have been the target of a mail cover, as there is no disclosure requirement after the fact and the agencies involved won’t volunteer that info. Many lawyers don’t even know mail covers exist, and only the savviest of them ask the right questions to discover a mail cover.

Naturally, mail covers have been abused in the past. Political organizations and activists have been monitored with mail covers, even the occasional high school student who writes to the “wrong” group for info for a class project. In 1975, it was discovered that the CIA had spent two decades opening 13,000 letters using supposed mail cover operations.

Source: The National Law Journal,
http://www.law.com/cgi-bin/gx.cgi/AppLogic+FTContentServer?pagename=law/ View&c=Article&cid=ZZZB1H2OEZC&live=true&cst=1&pc=0&pa=0&s=News&ExpIgnore=true&showsummary=0

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