Thursday, January 04, 2007

Who's got mail?

Steve Benen has something to say about GWB's notorious use of signing statements (see here and here).

Ah, those pesky signing statements. You just never know what White House lawyers will quietly put in there.

President Bush has quietly claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans’ mail without a judge’s warrant, the Daily News has learned.

The President asserted his new authority when he signed a postal reform bill into law on Dec. 20. Bush then issued a “signing statement” that declared his right to open people’s mail under emergency conditions.

That claim is contrary to existing law and contradicted the bill he had just signed, say experts who have reviewed it.

Bush’s move came during the winter congressional recess and a year after his secret domestic electronic eavesdropping program was first revealed. It caught Capitol Hill by surprise.

I suspect the president’s supporters will argue that terrorists might send mail, and law enforcement officials need to be able to review that mail in order to keep Americans safe.

That’s true, but a) there’s already a legal mechanism in place to intercept suspicious mail; and b) it’s beside the point. As Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the incoming House Government Reform Committee chairman, who co-sponsored the bill, explained, “Despite the President’s statement that he may be able to circumvent a basic privacy protection, the new postal law continues to prohibit the government from snooping into people’s mail without a warrant.”

The closer one looks at the signing statement, the worse it looks.

The legislation in question, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, is mostly mundane, but as the New York Daily News noted, it also explicitly reinforced protections of first-class mail from searches without a court’s approval. Bush signed the bill, but gave it a little after-the-fact touch-up — his signing statement said he’d ignore the privacy provisions under “exigent circumstances.” That could refer to an imminent danger, or it could refer to “a longstanding state of emergency.”

But what about the proverbial “ticking bomb” nightmare? Under existing law, before the signing statement, the Postal Service is already empowered to block delivery of suspicious mail, and the administration could quickly get a warrant from a criminal court or a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge to search targeted mail. The Bush White House has decided to short circuit that process, giving itself the power it wants.

Experts said the new powers could be easily abused and used to vacuum up large amounts of mail.

“The [Bush] signing statement claims authority to open domestic mail without a warrant, and that would be new and quite alarming,” said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington.

“The danger is they’re reading Americans’ mail,” she said.

“You have to be concerned,” agreed a career senior U.S. official who reviewed the legal underpinnings of Bush’s claim. “It takes Executive Branch authority beyond anything we’ve ever known.”

I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that sentence the last few years


Blogger liberal journal man said...

Bush should be allowed to read my mail. He also can pull down my pants and give me a cavity search if he likes to, too.

9:40 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Aw, LJM, you're still turned on by Commander Codpiece and letting your hormones dominate you brain, aren't you?

I had been thinking that it was from the cavity searches that he got some of his better ideas... better there than what one might find *shudder* in his mental cavity.

9:46 PM  

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