THE BUSH administration seems determined to raise the specter of surveillance over every means of communication within the United States. Not content to monitor selected phone calls and e-mails in secret, it recently hinted that letters and packages may be opened without a search warrant too.
The disclosure came in yet another presidential "signing statement," in which President Bush gives his opinion about the legislation on his desk. This one accompanied the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act -- a bill to modernize how the Postal Service sets rates, promotes competition with private carriers and shores up funding for its employee retirement benefits.
In his statement, Bush seemed to assert a broader right to do warrantless mail searches than postal regulations allow. The executive branch, he said, would interpret the section on mail privacy "in a manner consistent, to the maximum extent permissible, with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances ... and the need for physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection."
Befuddled, some privacy advocates started asking why the White House felt compelled to assert these surveillance powers when the issue wasn't even on the table. Was Bush trying to provide cover for another secret monitoring program? Was he laying the groundwork for a new one? Was he prodding balky government agents into being more aggressive on mail searches?
Suspicions have undoubtedly been heightened because of the administration's aggressive use of signing statements to defend executive-branch prerogatives, even when they're not at issue. By late July, Bush had used them to challenge more than 800 provisions of bills he signed into law. All of his predecessors combined had challenged fewer than 600 provisions in that manner.
The White House tried to allay fears last week about mail snooping. "There is nothing new here," said spokesman Tony Snow. The statement, he said, is "merely a statement of present law and present authorities granted to the president."
On the surface, he's right. The courts have allowed searches without a warrant under "exigent circumstances," and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act permits them in emergencies when the targets are foreign agents or terrorists.
Still, it's hard not to be suspicious of the president's position on mail privacy, given the administration's record on the issue of domestic surveillance. In the name of the "war on terror," it has taken an unusually expansive view of government power and a correspondingly restrictive view of individual privacy rights. It also has sought to redefine what constitutes a "reasonable" search, and has often done so unilaterally and in secret.
The administration may indeed be up to nothing new when it comes to mail -- and that's not the least bit comforting.