USPS IG report states postal inspectors overstepped their authority
Washington Postal Scene by Bill McAllister
On April 21, 2021, Yahoo News rocked the United States Postal Service with a story that the Postal Service’s law enforcement arm was “quietly running a program that tracks and collects Americans’ social media posts.”
[Editor’s note: Linn’s reported on the Yahoo News story in the May 17, 2021, issue.]
The online story described how a unit within the U.S. Postal Inspection Service was scouring social media sites on the internet for “inflammatory” postings and sharing its findings with other government agencies.
Some asked why was the cash-starved Postal Service doing the work that other nonpostal intelligence agencies should have been handling.
The story troubled both Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., the Democratic chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the ranking Republican on the committee, who demanded that the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General probe what was happening.
In a report dated March 25, the inspector general answered some of their questions, concluding that some of the “open source” searches of the internet that the Internet Covert Operations Program unit, known as iCOP, conducted “exceeded the Postal Inspection Service’s law enforcement authority.”
The inspector general also questioned “whether 28 percent of the work iCOP and Analytics Team analysts completed from October 2018 through June 2021 was authorized under the Postal Inspection Service’s legal authority.”
Titled “U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s Online Analytical Support Activities,” the report set off a sharp debate within postal headquarters.
Before the release of the report, Chief Postal Inspector Gary R. Barksdale and Thomas J. Marshall, general counsel for the USPS, filed a sharp, nine-page dissent.
They expressed strong disagreement with the report’s “overarching conclusion” that the inspection service had “exceeded its authority and conducted improper intelligence searches.”
Both federal law and case law allow “a wide range of topics” that its law enforcement officers can invoke in protection of the Postal Service, they argued.
“We assert, therefore, that every search conducted by the agency and reviewed by the USPS-OIG, has a postal nexus,” they said.
The inspection service had maintained from the outset that the work of its iCOP unit was proper and authorized under the laws that cover federal law enforcement activities. The unit was renamed the Analytics Team in April 2021.
In the report, the Office of Inspector General did not retreat from its basic belief that the “nexus” of all Postal Service inspection activities “should be a connection to the mail, postal crimes, or the security of Postal Service facilities or personnel.”
The report urged more guidance for future online analytic searches, suggesting approval of keywords for any searches, requiring that any proactive searches be documented and approved before work begins and requiring that these searches “identify the postal nexus.”
Of 70 reports produced by iCOP that assessed threats that the inspector general reviewed, 18 did not identify a postal nexus, the report said.
Seventeen of these 18 reports dealt with national and local protests “but none identified how the potential protest activities related to the mail, postal crimes, or security of postal facilities or employees,” the report said.
A majority of the 70 internal reports identified “a clear postal nexus and discussed specific threats to people, such as the Postmaster General, or property, such as a postal facility,” the report said.
Overall, the inspector general made six specific recommendations:
“Conduct a full review of the Analytics Team’s responsibilities, activities, procedures, and any other associated guidance; and develop a process to ensure that all online analytical support activities conducted by the Postal Inspection Service are authorized.
“Modify the Analytics Team’s Standard Operating Procedures to require the Office of Counsel to document its approval of all predefined keywords used for proactive intelligence searches, including approval for any changes to the predefined keywords.
“Modify the Analytics Team’s Standard Operating Procedures to clarify documentation requirements for Requests for Assistance, to include requiring postal inspectors to document the postal nexus in their requests.
“Modify the Analytics Team’s Standard Operating Procedures to require the Office of Counsel to document its approval of proactive work assignments at the time they are initiated.
“Modify the Analytics Team’s Standard Operating Procedures to require that all reports identify the postal nexus.
“Develop procedures for retaining documentation associated with work completed by the Analytics Team and storing sensitive information to ensure compliance with Postal Service policy.”
The Office of Inspector General acknowledged there was “significant disagreement” over the report’s findings and promised to keep the case open until changes are made in the Analytics Teams section of the Postal Inspection Service.
“The Inspector General’s report makes it clear the Postal Inspection Service went beyond its authority to spy on Americans’ online activity unrelated to the Postal Service. It’s clear more safeguards are needed to ensure the Inspection Service does not abuse its power to conduct surveillance outside of its lawful authority,” Comer said.
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