Republican lawmakers said they are pushing to end the U.S. Postal Service’s surveillance of Americans via its internet covert operations program (iCOP).
The program purportedly monitored Americans via their social media posts, and lawmakers have pressed the Postal Service for answers about their conduct.
Ten Republican representatives are pushing to defund iCOP via the “USPIS Surveillance Protection Act,” following a private briefing that Chief Postal Inspector Gary R. Barksdale held with lawmakers last week.
“The @USPS has NO business spying on Americans,” Rep. Paul Gosar, Arizona Republican, wrote on Twitter. “Proud to co-sponsor this important legislation. Thank you to my colleague from Florida [Rep. Matt Gaetz] for leading this effort.”
Alongside Mr. Gaetz and Mr. Gosar are Republican Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Ken Buck of Colorado, Tim Burchett of Tennessee, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, and Greg Steube of Florida, per an announcement of the bill by Mr. Gaetz.
Details of the Postal Service’s monitoring Americans’ social media emerged last month via an iCOP bulletin published by Yahoo! News. Last week, Mr. Barksdale briefed lawmakers about the program in private and participating lawmakers told The Washington Times that they came away without answers to basic questions about the Postal Service’s actions.
Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the top-ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said Mr. Barksdale told lawmakers that iCOP was originally focused on protecting against the movement of opioids and firearms through the mail but it expanded its function last year as threats increased against Postal Service leadership, employees, and their facilities.
“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,” Mr. Comer said.
The iCOP bulletin published by Yahoo! mentioned monitoring “right-wing leaning Parler and Telegram accounts” in anticipation of protests last month and the bulletin noted analysts had tracked users on Facebook and Twitter as well.
The alleged social media monitoring of planned protests has aroused fears of government snooping on Americans’ political organizing in general, and its attention to right-wing groups has spurred fears of ideological targeting in particular.
The Postal Service has the authority to open Americans’ mail, but whether that authority extends to digital messages or other internet communications is not immediately clear. On its website, the Postal Service details different types of packages that it “may choose” to open, including domestic packages sent via “USPS Retail Ground®” and “First-Class Package Service commercial” among others.
University of California, Berkeley, law professor Orin Kerr said accessing private messages would require a warrant under the Fourth Amendment and the social media companies would not disclose such messages without a warrant. If postal inspectors are reading and watching the open web like anyone else, he said there would be no Fourth Amendment violation.
“If you post something to a social media site that anyone can view, you should assume the government can view it, too,” said Mr. Kerr in an email.