- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

The Customs Service has increased the amount of incoming mail it opens for screening in the aftermath of September's terrorist attacks and the anthrax mailings.
Foreign mail entering the United States must be cleared by Customs before it goes to the U.S. Postal Service for delivery.
Since September 11, Customs has conducted "enhanced operations" at all ports of entry, including mail-arrival points, agency spokesman Dean Boyd said. That means more inspections of incoming people, goods and cargo, as well as mail, he said.
The increase "certainly does raise privacy questions," said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"I have heard, anecdotally, there is considerably greater opening of foreign mail," Mr. Steinhardt said. "It's a further sign that this has been a period when our liberty is being compromised and for no apparent benefit."
Once first-class mail is in the U.S. Postal Service system, it cannot be opened without a court order, Postal Service inspector Dan Mihalko said. The law specifically gives Customs agents border search authority to investigate incoming items that they feel may be suspicious.
"The Supreme Court has held it's permissible for Customs to open incoming mail if it has reasonable cause to suspect that it contains incriminating information or items," said Christopher Slobogin, a University of Florida law professor. "But my guess is that the inspections of mail taking place now are not based on reasonable cause, but rather are random or perhaps are based on something as minimal as the return address on the envelope."
Mr. Slobogin said it is understandable that the government would want to look closer at anything entering the country after the attacks.
"But one hopes that the government exhibits some balance between the desire to enhance security and the personal privacy of those using the mail," he said. "That a letter crosses an international border doesn't mean that its contents become less private."
Mr. Boyd, the Customs spokesman, said that items are not opened "willy-nilly," but only on reasonable suspicion that an envelope contains something more than merely a letter, he said.
"We look for anomalies" in deciding what may be suspicious, he said.
In recent years, agents have noted a sharp increase in mailings of the drug Ecstasy from Europe, leading to more attention to that area.
Mr. Boyd was reluctant to specify whether any particular part of the world was getting extra attention, noting that contraband can be mailed to the United States via third countries to allay suspicion.
He said that if inspectors open mail, they reseal it with tape bearing a Customs mark. Mail also can be inspected with X-rays or checked by dogs.
Mr. Boyd could not provide a percentage increase for the amount of mail being opened.

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