The U.S. Postal Service failed to answer basic questions about its alleged spying on Americans in a private briefing with House members, according to lawmakers who attended, deepening concerns that the agency is targeting conservatives.
The apparent snooping by the Postal Service’s Internet Covert Operations Program, or iCOP, came to light in an iCOP bulletin about monitoring “right-wing leaning Parler and Telegram accounts” in anticipation of protests last month.
The bulletin, which was published by Yahoo News, noted that iCOP analysts monitored users on Facebook and Twitter as well.
“We got a good glimpse of abuse of power when Lois Lerner was running the IRS, but this kind of seems like that,” said Rep. Andy Biggs, Arizona Republican.
Former IRS unit director Lois G. Lerner targeted conservative and tea party groups during the Obama administration and was held in contempt of Congress after not testifying at a congressional hearing. The Justice Department later decided not to bring a criminal case against her.
Much was left unclear after the closed-door briefing, including whether the suspected spying targeted only conservatives.
The Postal Service did not answer when it started monitoring Americans’ social media posts, how much taxpayer money was spent on the program or what legal authority the agency had to operate the program, said Rep. Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican who attended the virtual briefing.
Ms. Mace’s office said Chief Postal Inspector Gary R. Barksdale both denied the social media monitoring program existed and said there was an executive overseeing it. He also said the Postal Service would continue its surveillance, according to a readout of the meeting that the office provided to The Washington Times.
Mr. Biggs, who also attended the briefing, said he asked why such surveillance was being conducted by the Postal Service, and the agency said it would have to get back to him.
He said the Postal Service indicated it was not looking at individuals or groups, as was the case in the IRS scandal.
A report on the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s website, however, specifically notes that iCOP focuses on individuals and groups.
“The iCOP program protects the Postal Service and the public by facilitating the identification, disruption and dismantling of individuals and organizations that use the mail or USPS online tools to facilitate black market internet trade or other illegal activities,” reads a 2019 annual report on the inspection service’s website.
Ms. Mace said the chief postal inspector was “wildly unprepared” for the briefing, and Mr. Biggs said he wanted the explanation to be given at an open hearing instead of a hidden virtual meeting.
Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the top-ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, blamed Democrats for iCOP’s social media monitoring program.
“Chief Postal Inspector Barksdale today explained iCOP originated to help protect the American people from the movement of illegal firearms and opioids through the mail, but USPS expanded it last year as threats against USPS leadership, employees and facilities began to increase,” Mr. Comer said in a statement.
“Though questions remain about the expansion of the iCOP program, it’s clear Democrats’ reckless rhetoric has led to increased danger to postal property and individuals forcing the postal inspectors to divert from their main mission as a law enforcement entity.”
USPS did not respond to questions posed by The Washington Times in multiple voicemail messages.
Notre Dame professor James O’Rourke, who has studied the Postal Service at the university’s business college, said the postal inspectors’ actions suggest that the FBI or Department of Homeland Security was using the postal inspectors as trusted subcontractors to obtain information they did not want to collect themselves.
Mr. O’Rourke said tasking a private group to collect such information could expose the government to leaks and requesting the information from social media companies could prove thorny, given lawmakers and regulators are already scrutinizing their businesses.
Privacy and surveillance experts said the Postal Service vastly overstepped its authority and fear the iCOP program is a major red flag for other domestic spying.
David Greene, the civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Americans should worry about any government agency spying on their social media accounts, particularly when it comes to their organizing and social interactions.
“I don’t think the USPS or the USPIS – the Postal Inspection Service — has this authority. If they do, they should indicate what it is,” Mr. Greene said in an email. “What has been stated — that they need to be able to ensure the safety of the carriers — certainly does not justify such wide-ranging surveillance of millions of Americans.”
The Project On Government Oversight’s Jake Laperruque said the biggest alarm bell iCOP has rung is its focus on monitoring protesters.
“I really have trouble conceptualizing where you’d engage in social media monitoring for [the Postal Service],” Mr. Laperruque said. “It seems so disconnected from the type of activities their mandate is to keep an eye on.”
Last year, the Project On Government Oversight spotted a Predator drone above Minneapolis protests after the killing of George Floyd. The aerial footage captured by the government drone was released this month.
Mr. Laperruque said he was concerned iCOP’s actions signal the government’s incorrect response to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. Mr. Laperruque said he thought the government’s failure to prevent the riot did not result from a failure to detect its potential but from a lack of incentive to share information and stop it.
Those charged with oversight of the Postal Service still have more questions than answers, lawmakers said.
Mr. Biggs said he was not aware of any other federal agencies having a program like iCOP and had considered requesting that every federal government agency answer whether they, too, are running covert operations targeting Americans on the internet.