WASHINGTON – President Bush has quietly claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans’ mail without a judge’s warrant.
The president asserted his new authority when he signed a postal reform bill into law Dec. 20. Bush then issued a “signing statement” that declared his right to open people’s mail under emergency conditions.
That claim is contrary to existing law and contradicted the bill he had just signed, say experts who have reviewed it.
Bush’s move came during the winter congressional recess and a year after his secret domestic electronic eavesdropping program was revealed. It caught Capitol Hill by surprise.
“Despite the president’s statement that he may be able to circumvent a basic privacy protection, the new postal law continues to prohibit the government from snooping into people’s mail without a warrant,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the incoming House Government Reform Committee chairman, who co-sponsored the bill.
Experts said the new powers could be easily abused and used to vacuum up large amounts of mail.
“The (Bush) signing statement claims authority to open domestic mail without a warrant, and that would be new and quite alarming,” said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington.
A top Senate Intelligence Committee aide promised, “It’s something we’re going to look into.”
Most of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act deals with mundane reform measures. But it also explicitly reinforced protections of first-class mail from searches without a court’s approval.
Yet in his statement Bush said he will “construe” an exception, “which provides for opening of an item of a class of mail otherwise sealed against inspection in a manner consistent … with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances.”
White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore denied Bush was claiming any new authority.
“In certain circumstances – such as with the proverbial ‘ticking bomb’ – the Constitution does not require warrants for reasonable searches,” she said.