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Susan Collins

Reaffirming Americans' Postal Privacy Rights
By Senator Susan Collins
Jan 13, 2007 - 1:51:12 PM

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One of the most basic protections that we have as Americans and hold dear is the right to privacy. We want to be assured that the government respects our constitutional rights in many aspects of our lives, including our right to privacy when sending and receiving domestic, first-class mail. As Americans, we want to know that when we write a letter to a friend or relative, only the person to whom that letter is addressed will be opening and reading that letter. Fortunately, our laws providing this protection are very clear.

A recent statement issued by the White House when the President signed the postal reform act, however, has caused much concern that the President might infringe on these rights in the name of national security. In response, I introduced a bipartisan resolution in the U.S. Senate reaffirming that both the federal law and the Constitution protect sealed domestic mail from being searched, and that nothing in the law has changed to threaten this important right to privacy. I introduced this resolution because the protection of sealed domestic mail is a value fundamental enough to our national heritage that the American public needs to be reassured that this protection remains fully intact, no matter what the President's signing statement asserts.

Furthermore, I have called on the Administration to clarify its intent with its recent statement so as to provide the American public these additional reassurances.

On December 20, 2006, the President signed into law historic postal reform legislation that I authored with Senator Tom Carper (D-DE). This is a bipartisan bill that I worked on for three years, and it represents the most sweeping reforms of the U.S. Postal Service in over three decades. The U.S. Postal Service is the lynchpin of a $900 billion mailing industry, providing nine million jobs nationwide in fields as diverse as direct mailing, catalog companies, paper manufacturing, printing, and financial services. But under its previous business model, which had not been updated in three decades, the financial future of the Postal Service would not have been viable. Our bill will help the Postal Service meet the challenges of the 21st Century. It establishes a new rate setting system, and it helps ensure a strong financial future for the Postal Service. In addition, it protects the basic features of universal service and provides for continued authority for the Postal Service to establish a class of mail sealed against inspection.

In other words, the new law does absolutely nothing to alter the protections of privacy and civil liberties provided by the Constitution and other federal laws. In fact, the President's signing statement appears to do nothing more than restate current law.

Under current law, mail sealed against inspection is entitled to the strongest possible protections against physical searches - the protections afforded by our Constitution. With only limited exceptions, the government needs a warrant issued by a court before it can search sealed mail. This is true whether the search is conducted under our criminal code to obtain evidence of a crime or under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to collect foreign intelligence information concerning a national security threat.

Only when there is an immediate danger to life or limb or an immediate and substantial danger to property can the government search a domestic sealed package or envelope. This occurs, for example, when wires protruding from a package, odors escaping from an envelope, or stains on the outside of a package indicate the contents may constitute such a danger.

My resolution, which is cosponsored by Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT), Tom Carper (D-DE), Norm Coleman (R-MN), and Daniel Akaka (D-HI), makes perfectly clear to all law-abiding Americans that the federal government will not invade their privacy by reading their sealed mail. Any contrary interpretation of the Postal Reform Act is just plain wrong.

While the President's recent signing statement does nothing to change current law, it causes concern about the Administration's broad use of such statements to raise questions about the Executive's intention to comply with legislation approved by Congress and signed by the President. This is a concern that I have raised in the past and the reason why I called on the Administration to clarify its intent with the postal reform signing statement.

The text our bipartisan resolution is as follows:

Whereas all Americans depend on the United States Postal Service to transact business and communicate with friends and family;

Whereas postal customers have a constitutional right to expect that their sealed domestic mail will be protected against unreasonable searches;

Whereas the circumstances and procedures under which the government may search sealed mail are well-defined, including provisions under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.), and generally require prior judicial approval;

Whereas the United States Postal Inspection Service has the authority to open and search a sealed envelope or package when there is immediate threat to life or limb or an immediate and substantial danger to property;

Whereas the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (Public Law 109-435) expressly reaffirmed the right of postal customers to have access to a class of mail sealed against inspection;

Whereas the United States Postal Service affirmed January 4, 2007 that the enactment of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (Public Law 109-435) does not grant Federal law enforcement officials any new authority to open domestic mail;

Whereas the signing statement on the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (Public Law 109-435) issued by President Bush on December 20, 2006, raises questions about the President's commitment to abide by these basic privacy protections; and

Whereas the Senate rejects any interpretation of the President's signing statement on the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (Public Law 109-435) that in any way diminishes the privacy protections accorded sealed domestic mail under the Constitution and federal laws and regulations:

Now, therefore, be it resolved, that the Senate reaffirms the constitutional and statutory protections accorded sealed domestic mail.

Americans' privacy rights are some of the most cherished rights we have under our Constitution. And it is a false choice that we must decide between protecting these rights versus ensuring the safety of our nation. There is a balance that ensures both.

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