President Bush has quietly claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans' mail without a judge's warrant, the Daily News has learned.
The President asserted his new authority when he signed a postal reform bill into law on Dec. 20. Bush then issued a "signing statement" that declared his right to open people's mail under emergency conditions.
That claim is contrary to existing law and contradicted the bill he had just signed, say experts who have reviewed it.
Bush's move came during the winter congressional recess and a year after his secret domestic electronic eavesdropping program was first revealed. It caught Capitol Hill by surprise.
"Despite the President's statement that he may be able to circumvent a basic privacy protection, the new postal law continues to prohibit the government from snooping into people's mail without a warrant," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the incoming House Government Reform Committee chairman, who co-sponsored the bill.
Experts said the new powers could be easily abused and used to vacuum up large amounts of mail.
"The [Bush] signing statement claims authority to open domestic mail without a warrant, and that would be new and quite alarming," said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington.
"The danger is they're reading Americans' mail," she said.
"You have to be concerned," agreed a career senior U.S. official who reviewed the legal underpinnings of Bush's claim. "It takes Executive Branch authority beyond anything we've ever known."
A top Senate Intelligence Committee aide promised, "It's something we're going to look into."
Most of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act deals with mundane reform measures. But it also explicitly reinforced protections of first-class mail from searches without a court's approval.
Yet in his statement Bush said he will "construe" an exception, "which provides for opening of an item of a class of mail otherwise sealed against inspection in a manner consistent ... with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances."
Bush cited as examples the need to "protect human life and safety against hazardous materials and the need for physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection."
White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore denied Bush was claiming any new authority.
"In certain circumstances - such as with the proverbial 'ticking bomb' - the Constitution does not require warrants for reasonable searches," she said.
Bush, however, cited "exigent circumstances" which could refer to an imminent danger or a longstanding state of emergency.
Critics point out the administration could quickly get a warrant from a criminal court or a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge to search targeted mail, and the Postal Service could block delivery in the meantime.
But the Bush White House appears to be taking no chances on a judge saying no while a terror attack is looming, national security experts agreed.
Martin said that Bush is "using the same legal reasoning to justify warrantless opening of domestic mail" as he did with warrantless eavesdropping.
Arrrgh. There they go again. Bush apparently can't stand the thought that someone, somewhere might be saying something he doesn't know about. And our descent towards police-state totalitarianism just gets steeper and creepier.
In my happy fantasy dream world, the president's authority to make signing statements is repudiated by the Supreme Court, and the president is then impeached and convicted for his multiple violations of the laws he tried to exempt himself from. I'm also filthy rich, invulnerable, and irresistible to women.
o Snail mail seems a bit inconsistent with the "ticking time bomb" scenario, no? Not inconceivable, but pretty unlikely.
o I didn't see any mention of the eavesdropping being limited to mail to or from a foreign country - indeed, all the references were to "domestic mail," so the scope is a lot broader than what the administration claims to be doing with regard to wiretapping.
o As an NYT op-ed or LTE pointed out a while back, if there aren't enough translators to handle the volume of mail and phone conversations to be spied on, then this is transparently not about preventing terrorism, unless the Bushies are stupid enough to think that Arab-speaking terrorists would talk to each other in English for our convenience (okay, I'll concede that one).
o I would like to add the following to my happy fantasy dream world: A professional-quality 20-megapixel thought-controlled eye camera, with a zoom lens that can instantly go from ultra-wide fisheye to ultrasupermegazoom (so much for wearing glasses). Also, it would have to be wireless so I wouldn't have to stick USB cables up my nose.