Inspector General finds fault with mail examination program

By Bill McAllister, Washington Correspondent

The United States Postal Service’s inspector general has found a number of shortcomings in a program that allows Postal Service officials to look at — but not open — an individual’s incoming mail.

The secretive program, run by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, is called the Mail Covers Program.

In fiscal 2013, inspectors processed about 49,000 mail covers under the program, according to a report released June 13.

But the inspector general discovered a number of problems with the program, noting that 21 percent of the covers examined were approved by individuals who lacked written authority for such approvals.

The report also said 13 percent of the covers studied “did not have the required justification or were not transcribed accurately.”

The program allows Postal Service officials to record data appearing on the outside of a mailpiece at the request of a law enforcement agency.

Those requests must be reviewed by the Criminal Investigative Service Center (CISC), a group within the inspection service.

Only the CISC manager, chief postal inspector or designated individuals may approve a cover operation.

The program is so sensitive that the released report blacked out the names of some of the local police and federal agencies who used the mail cover program.

The report described the cover program as an investigative tool used by a number of police agencies. The report said it could be used “to protect national security, locate fugitives, obtain evidence, or help identify property, proceeds, or assets forfeitable under criminal law.”

“A mail cover should not be used as a routine investigative tool,” the report stated.

It said a “requesting law enforcement agency must explain what law the subject of the mail cover is violating and how the mail cover could further the investigation or provide evidence of a crime.”

The requests must be in writing, and the CISC is required to ensure that any request “contains enough information to stand alone as full justification for the cover and fully complies with all applicable regulations.”

The report also said it had failed to find evidence that the Inspection Service had conducted required annual reviews of the program.

Congress created the Office of Inspector General in 1996 over the objections of the USPS. Until then, the Postal Inspection Service acted as the Postal Service’s internal watchdog.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service agreed to take the inspector general’s suggested steps to bring the mail cover program in line with requirements, the report said.