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?