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Bush Wants to Secretly Read Your Mail


By John W. Whitehead

The RutheRford Institute

First came the sneak-and-peek, black-bag searches. Then there was the surveillance of Americans’ private phone calls and emails. Now, we’re being told that the government, under direction from the president, can open and read our private mail without a warrant.

What’s next—the quartering of soldiers in our homes?

In what could be considered a stealthy maneuver, on December 20, 2006, while Americans threw themselves into the frenzy of last-minute Christmas shopping, President Bush quietly claimed the authority to allow government agents to open the private mail of American citizens.

This brazen plan to further invade what little privacy we have left was conveyed in a presidential signing statement on a new postal law. The statement interprets the law in such a way as to allow government agents to open sealed mail to protect life, guard against hazardous materials or conduct “physical searches specifically authorized by law or foreign intelligence collection.”

The Bush Administration insists that this is not a sweeping new power but merely a statement of current law and present authorities granted to the president. However, the signing statement goes beyond long-recognized limits on the ability of the government to open U.S. mail without a judge’s approval. For example, current law permits the government to peer into letters and other types of mail if there is a suspicion that they might contain a bomb. Also, if mail cannot be delivered as addressed, they can open it to determine if a correct address or return address can be found. But that’s about as far as the government can go without a warrant—and with good reason.

Strict limits on the government’s ability to open mail have been in place since the 1970s, when a U.S. Senate committee chaired by Frank Church (D-ID) issued its infamous Church Reports, which revealed that the CIA and FBI had illegally opened more than 215,000 pieces of mail starting in the 1950s and continuing through 1973. The committee found that government agents had opened mail to and from American dissidents, including those who challenged the condition of racial minorities and those who opposed the war in Vietnam, as well as the mail of senators, congressmen, journalists, businessmen and even a presidential candidate.

As Sen. Church declared at the onset of the hearings into the government’s illegal mail-opening activities, such a practice is “fundamentally at odds with freedom of expression and contrary to the laws of the land.” Furthermore, the U.S. Postal Service should not be “an inviolate haven for those who would destroy our liberties.” And as another member of the committee, Sen. John Tower (R-TX), stated, “If our efforts are to have lasting value in the protection of the liberties of our citizens, persons charged with the defense of the national security in the future must go about their task with an ingrained sense of the critical balance between protection of freedom and the sanctity of individual liberty in our society.”

President Bush would have done well to heed Tower’s words prior to issuing his most recent signing statement—or the approximately 750 others issued by him (more than those issued by all the other presidents combined) that preceded it.

Although signing statements have been used for decades by presidents as a way to thank supporters, provide reasons for signing a bill or express dissatisfaction or pleasure with Congress, the Bush Administration has used the statements as a way of disregarding laws which it believes may interfere with national security or limit the power of the president, essentially doing an end-run around congressionally enacted laws.

Now, with this latest assault on our freedoms, things have gone from bad to worse. Since 9/11, our civil liberties have been under constant attack, especially as the Bush Administration has steadily carried out its agenda to exponentially expand the power of the executive branch. The end result will be the creation of an imperial presidency that will wreak havoc on our Constitution and undermine our freedoms.

Yet contrary to what the present administration seems to think, the Constitution is not a piece of paper to which one can strike a match. It is a binding contract between the people and our elected representatives. Furthermore, the rule of law laid out in the Constitution is the very foundation of our democracy. This means that the president, as are all our elected officials, is under the law, not above it. He must faithfully execute the laws of the United States. And we have to be able to trust that our president, as his oath of office declares, will uphold and defend the Constitution. If not, then everything our courageous men and women in uniform are fighting for in Iraq becomes null and void.

As history has shown, freedom can be lost at a second’s notice. But the process of undermining liberty happens slowly and insidiously, long before it becomes evident to the average citizen. And I fear that too many Americans, distracted by everyday life and caught up in all the entertainment spectacles, are asleep at the wheel. All the while, the government continues to assume Orwellian powers that undermine everything our country stands for. It’s time to wake up.


John W. Whitehead is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Whitehead's concern for the persecuted and oppressed led him, in 1982, to establish The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization whose international headquarters are located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Whitehead serves as the Institute’s president and spokesperson.


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