He's got your mail

January 08, 2007

Neither rain nor snow nor heat nor gloom of night keeps postal carriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds, but President Bush might stop them to peek.

The chief executive who unilaterally asserted his authority to wiretap Americans without a warrant and to peruse their phone records now says he also has the right to open domestic mail as he sees fit.

The new Democratic-led Congress, still moving into offices and setting up Web sites, should move quickly to curb this executive overreach before Americans have no privacy from their government left at all.

Mr. Bush declared his power to open and read sealed mail in a signing statement that accompanied his approval of a relatively routine bill passed late last year that was intended to put the U.S. Postal Service, which has been hurt by e-mail competition, on sounder financial footing.

The measure reinforced protections of current law that forbid searches of first-class mail without judicial approval. That apparently prompted Mr. Bush to note that he will "construe" as an exception to those protections "the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances" such as those "authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection."

The White House claims there is nothing new here. The Postal Service has long had the power to open mail if it is suspected to contain a bomb or other hazardous device or in search of information to help deliver mail that can't otherwise reach its destination.

But lawmakers and privacy-rights advocates are troubled by the vagueness of the language and question why Mr. Bush included it if there was no intent to change policy.

What's more, the signing statement itself is a red flag because Mr. Bush has used such documents far more than any of his predecessors and often to contradict the purpose of the legislation he has just signed, or to announce his refusal to comply with it.

As Mr. Bush and Congress battle out this issue, it's ironic that legislation intended to strengthen the Postal Service may further undermine it. Many Americans don't write letters anymore or use the mail to pay their bills and conduct other personal business. And they can hardly be encouraged to do so if there's no longer any guarantee about who might be steaming open those envelopes.

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