Why is the U.S. Postal Service (USPIS) reading Americans’ social media posts? Now there’s a question for someone to ask Biden administration Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
The news broke this week when someone leaked a “Situational Awareness Bulletin” to Yahoo News. Dated March 16, 2021, this two-page “intelligence summary” reported that USPIS’s Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP) had monitored “multiple social media platforms” including Facebook, Parler, Twitter, and Telegram. What caught their eye? Postings and conversations related to possible March 20 protests at state capitals and in Washington, D.C., against Biden’s election, 5G cellular, and tyranny.
The agency did not say it was investigating any of the individuals surveilled. Rather, the USPIS document said iCOP had shared the “inflammatory” postings with the Department of Homeland Security’s fusion centers, which merge intelligence across a variety of federal and state agencies.
Why exactly the USPIS did this is unclear. Sure, the January 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol was planned online, and federal security agencies feel foolish for failing to prepare for something that a guy in Israel was predicting would happen.
But the USPIS is not authorized to surveil the ’Net for threats to public order generally. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies have that responsibility.
The fine print on the Situational Awareness Bulletin claims the surveillance was based upon authority granted by 18 U.S. Code 3061. That is curious, because that portion of federal law only empowers postal inspectors to “investigate criminal matters related to the Postal Service and the mails.”
And the USPIS does good work busting creeps who use the mails to peddle kiddie porn and run illegal lotteries and scams that rip off the elderly. The agency’s cops (yes, they carry guns) seize deliveries of fentanyl and illicit narcotics sent through the mail. The USPIS’s agents also swept mail-sorting facilities on election night to ensure no postal workers were leaving mail-in ballots undelivered.
As for the iCOP unit, that was created under USPIS authority, and is
One of seven functional groups within the Inspection Service Cybercrime program. 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. Analysts in iCOP utilize USPS systems and tools to provide open source intelligence and cryptocurrency blockchain analysis in support of all Inspection Service investigations.
That is all well and fine, but the question recurs: why was iCOP monitoring social media postings about protests? Were insurrectionists plotting to seize post offices? Were they using the mail to deliver weapons to would-be revolutionaries?
Or is this an instance of mission creep?
When Yahoo News asked USPIS what this was all about, the agency gave a bureaucratic non-answer:
The Internet Covert Operations Program is a function within the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which assesses threats to Postal Service employees and its infrastructure by monitoring publicly available open source information. Additionally, the Inspection Service collaborates with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to proactively identify and assess potential threats to the Postal Service, its employees and customers, and its overall mail processing and transportation network.
Hello, Jen Psaki — can you speak to this issue? Americans deserve to know.
Kevin R. Kosar is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.