• The senators said the 'mail cover' tool 'threatens' the privacy and First Amendment rights of Americans
  • They added that a committee found the CIA photographed the exteriors of 2 million pieces of mail
  • The CIA also allegedly went through thousands of mail belonging to prominent activists and authors

A bipartisan group of Democratic and Republican senators has moved to stop the United States Postal Service (USPS) from allowing law enforcement surveillance on mail going to and from the country as they allege that there was "a long history of documented abuses of postal surveillance."

In the letter sent to the chief postal inspector Gary Barksdale and obtained by Wired, an equal number of senators from both parties warned that the USPS' "mail cover" request on packages "threatens both our privacy and First Amendment rights."

The postal service's mail cover request was described by the agency as "an investigative tool used to record data appearing on the outside of a mailpiece."

The tool is implemented upon request of law enforcement agencies as they use information gathered from the tool "to protect national security; locate fugitives; obtain evidence; or help identify property, proceeds, or assets forfeitable under criminal law."

A mail cover is justified "when it will further an investigation or provide evidence of a crime," the USPS said of the data-recording tool.

The USPS does not indicate whether a person whose mail is being surveilled is the subject of an investigation or suspected of any illegal activity, Wired noted.

Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Edward Markey, D-Mass.; Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Mike Lee, R-Utah; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; and Steve Daines, R-Mont., want the USPS to disallow mail covers without the permission of a federal judge. The lawmakers said mail covers can only be allowed "in emergencies."

They said the Church Committee, which was established to investigate cases of intelligence abuse in the country, found that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) photographed "the exteriors of over 2 million pieces of mail."

The lawmakers added that the CIA opened hundreds of thousands of mail that belonged to "prominent activists and authors."

Mail covers do not reveal information about the correspondence but "they can reveal deeply personal information about Americans' political leanings, religious beliefs, or causes they support," the policymakers argued.

Thus, abuse of the said information about American citizens threatened the public's right to assemble "without the government watching," the senators wrote.

The USPS authorizes the mail cover tool under its own regulations as no federal laws require the post office to allow it.

In February 2022, the think tank Brennan Center for Justice called on Congress to disallow "the executive branch to have free access to Americans' most personal data based on outdated factual distinctions that have no relevance to the level of privacy intrusion or risk of abuse."

The bipartisan group of senators sent their letter to the USPS about a month after President Joe Biden prohibited the government from utilizing commercial spyware tools that were used globally to surveil human rights activists, dissidents and journalists.

The executive order was made in response to growing concerns about tools that capture personal information from messages and other phone data.

While the CIA is at the center of the senators' letter, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has also recently been at the center of intelligence concerns.

Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., accused the FBI in March of wrongly looking up his name on foreign surveillance data although he did not provide information as to why the FBI searched him up.

LaHood pressed FBI Director Chris Wray to acknowledge that the agency had at times violated data collection rules through electronic channels. Wray said the FBI was "eager" to work with the House Intelligence Committee to improve the agency's data-collection processes.

Meanwhile, the controversial Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act is set to expire by the end of 2023. Section 702 gives the National Security Agency (NSA) the authority to collect communications of foreigners abroad and allows the FBI to review the personal information of Americans without a warrant, as per Time.

A group of House Republicans are reportedly discussing moves on not renewing Section 702, a GOP aide told Politico in February.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chair of the House Judiciary Committee among the lawmakers that will lead discussions on Section 702, has said he will oppose the program's renewal unless changes are made.

A person enters a United States Postal Service Post Office in Manhattan, New York City
The U.S. Postal Service is at center of a Senate bipartisan request to drop the "mail cover" request of intelligence authorities. Reuters