The same law that has been cited by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) as the basis for a sweeping intelligence program has also been interpreted to be highly restrictive on postal policing activities—raising questions among some critics regarding the legitimacy of USPS surveillance power.
When Postal Police Officers Association President Frank Albergo first read a leaked U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) memo about the monitoring of conservative anti-lockdown protestors, something in the fine print caught his eye.
Written at the bottom of the March bulletin, postal officials claimed the power to surveil and disseminate information about the right-wing protests under 18 U.S. Code 3061—a statute with which Albergo is familiar.
As a labor representative for roughly 500 postal police officers, Albergo had previously fought with the USPS over the meaning of U.S.C. 3061. In summer 2020, Postal Service authorities stated that 3061 largely confines postal police officers to USPS property—restricting them from patrolling the streets to protect letter carriers, blue collection boxes, and mail vehicles.
Albergo and his union believe that USPS is restricting officers as a collective bargaining tactic to drive down their pay—by treating them as security guards, rather than full police. But putting that dispute aside, Albergo said he’s puzzled by what he sees as a contradiction.
“So, according to the Postal Service, the law allows the Inspection Service to surveil Americans’ social media accounts while at the same time, the law doesn’t allow a uniformed police force to protect the mail and employees while away from postal premises,” Albergo told The Epoch Times. “Only in the topsy-turvy world of the Postal Service could this make sense.”
Privacy advocates also have concerns about what USPS has called the Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP)—the existence of which was first revealed in April by Yahoo News. USPS faces lawsuits from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Judicial Watch, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and the James Madison Project over iCOP.
EFF senior staff attorney Aaron Mackey said he has similar questions about where USPS derives its surveillance authority. While noting that he’s not an expert in post office law, Mackey said he found it “odd” that the iCOP bulletin relied on U.S.C. 3061 as the basis for the program.
“As I read the statute, it provides limited powers for Postal Service law enforcement to investigate crimes, seek search warrants, and make arrests. But the scope of those powers is limited to the functioning of the Postal Service, its property, and related laws that protect mail,” he told The Epoch Times.
“It’s hard to square the sprawling iCOP surveillance program with the specific, limited law enforcement powers Congress created in section 3061. That’s partly why our FOIA lawsuit seeking records about iCOP has asked for documents that show the legal basis for the iCOP program.”
However, Cato Institute senior fellow Julian Sanchez said he thinks that USPS may have legal authority for surveillance operations. While U.S.C. 3061 may confine postal police officers to USPS property, it provides broader authority for “postal inspectors and other agents,” Sanchez said.
“None of this, of course, really solves the mystery of why the postal service inspectors would be monitoring social media posts related to protests, which on its face seems well outside their mandate of investigating crimes related to the Postal Service or the mail,” he said. “To the extent there’s anything legitimately worth investigating here, you’d think it would be the FBI’s job.”
Stressing that his theory is purely speculative, Sanchez said one reason for USPS’s surveillance operations could be restrictions on FBI agents from participating in social media groups without disclosing their identity.
“Other intelligence agencies are similarly required to have rules restricting ‘undisclosed participation’ by Executive Order 12333,” he said. “But the postal inspectors aren’t part of the intelligence community, so conceivably this could be a way of circumventing those rules.”
The USPIS—the law enforcement wing of the USPS—didn’t immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment about where it derives its authority for iCOP. USPS media contacts also didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Postal Service officials have previously defended iCOP as a legal open-source intelligence operation designed to protect its employees.
Albergo was more blunt in his assessment of whether U.S.C. 3061 authorizes surveillance programs such as iCOP.
“Absolutely nothing in 3061 could be construed as allowing such broad law enforcement jurisdiction,” he said, accusing USPIS of wanting to be a “quasi-NSA.”
Albergo also criticized the wisdom of USPIS devoting resources to surveillance operations at the expense of having officers on the streets. Multiple reports suggest that the postal service has been dealing with a drastic upswing in theft, fraud, and violent crime.
In September 2020, NBC News published a story reporting a 600 percent increase in mail theft reports over the past three years, to roughly 177,000 through August 2020 from about 25,000 in 2017. A May 2021 USPS inspector general report also found a 161 percent increase in mail theft complaints from March 2020 to February.
In October, Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale announced that USPIS had responded to more than 7,000 reports of violent crimes against post office employees over the past year, including threats, assaults, and homicides.
“With the explosion in postal-related street crime, what exactly is the USPIS doing to stop it, other than spending huge sums of money on surveillance?” Albergo asked. “The USPIS would rather investigate crime after it happens, rather than stopping it.”
Albergo is continuing to fight for his officers to be back on the streets.
The Postal Police Officers Association initially sued over the matter in September 2020, after Deputy Chief Inspector (DCI) David Bowers issued a memorandum stating that U.S.C. 3061 confines postal police officers to USPS property—what’s now referred to as the Bowers Memo.
The Postal Police Officers Association sought an injunction on the policy confining officers until its grievance could be settled in arbitration. A U.S. district judge tossed the postal union’s lawsuit in Nov. 2020, declining to put a halt on the USPS policy.
The parties are continuing to dispute the matter in arbitration.