JOHN KIRIAKOU: US Postal Service’s Attack on Privacy

Somehow, a quasi-government agency that spies on individuals with no probable cause or due process, in a haphazard manner that offers no recourse for the people being targeted, doesn’t seem constitutional.

United States Postal Service headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Coolcaesar, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

I’ve written in the past about the U.S. Postal Service’s so-called Mail Cover Program.   It allows postal employees to photograph and send to federal law enforcement organizations (F.B.I., Department of Homeland Security, Secret Service, etc.) the front and back of every piece of mail the Post Office processes. 

It also retains the information digitally and provides it to any government agency that wants it — without a warrant.  I’m not an attorney, of course.  But I’m also not an idiot.  And that policy strikes me as a violation of Americans’ civil liberties.

The Mail Cover Program has been known publicly for quite some time.  In 2015, the USPS inspector general issued a report justifying its existence and reasoning that, 

“Agencies must demonstrate a reasonable basis for requesting mail covers, send hard copies of request forms to the Criminal Investigative Service Center for processing, and treat mail covers as restricted and confidential…A mail cover should not be used as a routine investigative tool. Insufficient controls over the mail cover program could hinder the Postal Inspection Service’s ability to conduct effective investigations, lead to public concerns over privacy of mail, and harm the Postal Service’s brand.”

Not only were the admonitions ignored, the Mail Cover Program actually expanded after the report’s release. Indeed, in the months after that report was issued, there were 6,000 requests for mail cover collection. Only 10 were rejected, according to the February 2019 edition of Prison Legal News (P.34-35).

(Pixabay, CC0 1.0, Public domain)

Well, there have been some recent developments.  In a May 2023 letter to the director of the Postal Service, a bipartisan group of senators urged the USPS to require a federal judge to approve requests to spy on people’s mail, rather than to just approve or deny the request internally.  (Almost none of the 158,000 requests between 2011 and 2015 or the 312,000 requests since then have been denied.)  

The senators also urged the agency to “share more details on the program,” saying that officials there had chosen to “provide this surveillance service and to keep postal customers in the dark about the fact that they have been subjected to monitoring.”

In response, Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale told the senators to go fly a kite.  He argued in his response that the program “was not a large-scale surveillance apparatus” and was focused only on mail that could help police and national security agencies “carry out their missions and protect the American public.”

Personal Experience 

Let’s talk about that.  I have some personal experience with the Mail Cover Program. I served 23 months in prison for blowing the whistle on the C.I.A.’s illegal torture program. After having been locked up for two months, I decided to commission a card from a very artistically-inclined prisoner for my wife’s 40th birthday. I sent it about two weeks early, but she never received it. Finally, about four months later, the card was delivered back to me with a yellow “Return to Sender – Address Not Known” sticker on it. But underneath that sticker was a second yellow sticker. That one read, “Do Not Deliver. Hold For Supervisor. Cover Program.”

Why was I under Postal Service Surveillance? I have no idea. I had had my day in court. The case was over. But remember, the Postal Service doesn’t have to answer to anybody — my attorneys, my judge, any judge, sitting U.S. senators, even its own inspector general. It doesn’t need a warrant to spy on me (or my family) and it doesn’t have to answer to the media or to a U.S. senator interested in civil liberties and wondering why the spying was happening in the first place.

The problem is not just the sinister nature of a government agency (or quasi-government agency) spying on individuals with no probable cause or due process, although those are serious problems. It’s that the program is handled so poorly and so haphazardly that in some cases surveillance was initiated against individuals for no apparent law-enforcement reason and that surveillance was initiated by Postal Service employees not even authorized to do so. Again, there is no recourse because the people under surveillance don’t even know that any of this is happening.

Perhaps an even more disturbing aspect of the program is the fact that between 2000 and 2012, the Postal Service initiated an average of 8,000 mail cover requests per year. But in 2013, that number jumped to 49,000. 

Why? Nobody knows and the Postal Service doesn’t have to say.  The Postal Service hates that these numbers are public.  Indeed, according to the The Washington Post, postal inspectors said that releasing these details “would decrease the program’s effectiveness by alerting criminals to how the technique works.”

The question, though, is not how many cases are opened under the Mail Cover Program or even how many requests there are for the information. The real question is, “How is this constitutional?” Perhaps a secondary question is, “Why hasn’t anybody challenged the program in the courts?” In general, Americans don’t — or at least haven’t — objected to a gradual loss of civil liberties and constitutional rights. That has to stop. When even the Post Office is spying on you, you know the country is in trouble.

John Kiriakou is a former C.I.A. counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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23 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: US Postal Service’s Attack on Privacy

  1. Bob in Portland, OR
    June 30, 2024 at 15:19

    If you want to get really angry, check out the USPS spying operation that arose out of the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco. According to the San Francisco ACLU, it was lateraled off to the ADL, who continued it, against bookstores, Bay Area politicians (almost all Dems), various unions, including letter carriers.

    When various groups sued the ADL for spying the judge said unions didn’t have the right to search the files because their spying on us was private property.

  2. Mark Stanley
    June 30, 2024 at 13:27

    So, we the people pay the USPS to spy on us.
    A related issue: What is the annual advertising budget of the USPS? The adds are all over the place. I don’t want to pay for that either. Have y’all noticed that the price to ship a package has skyrocketed in the last few years?

  3. Dennis Hanna
    June 30, 2024 at 10:43


    The Ray McGovern-coined MICIMATT (military-industrial-congressional-intelligence-media-academia-think tank complex).

    I don’t claim Mr. McGovern’s knowledge, experience or expertise.

    I do, however, ask you to consider, to question what activity, what action does the United States government undertakes more than surveillance?

    But, not of its citizens!, you say.
    Please read: Permanent Record, Edward Snowden,
    Please watch the movie: The Good American
    Please read, watch and listen to
    “Twitter Files” … Matt Taibbi …
    pre-Musk Twitter and F.B.I. “working together”
    U.S. Postal Service’s so-called “Mail Cover Program”

    Now, What is your answer? What is your understanding?
    dennis hanna

    • Todd Wiseman
      June 30, 2024 at 16:11

      Cost of stamp should be a quarter

  4. June 30, 2024 at 02:54

    Smacks of communism to me.

  5. David Otness
    June 29, 2024 at 23:52

    Thank you as always, John. You are truly a great American of deep principles. You have educated so many in your diligent fight for what’s right in this nation and were willing to pay the price with honor and aplomb.
    Sincere thanks for your service to this nation.

  6. June 29, 2024 at 11:38

    When I finished teaching at CU Boulder I shipped a number of books back to Oregon via the USPS. This proved to be a big mistake. Tne boxes were opened at the Denver sorting office. A number of books were stolen. Other items – including Dennis Hopper’s original script for The Last Movie – were torn apart and spread around the boxes. And items which were not mine were stuffed into the boxes, which were then resealed.

    What caused my mail to receive this treatment? Could it be that I had been corresponding with a political prisoner named Kiriakou, via the US Mail?

    Keep up the good work, John!

    And let’s hope the US postal inspector is enjoying my childhood copy of Alice in Wonderland, which was one of the items that he stole.

    • A.G.
      June 30, 2024 at 12:45

      Frankly this is a harrowing story. I am not naive but to witness these things happen to actual people is different than that academic approach. Do I understand Kiriakou´s text right that even had you had proof (re: your boxes opened and content changed) you could have done nothing? File complaint? Anything? (What would Hopper have said to that…).
      Which is the real scandal to me. That even the law denies you basic rights. (But then, alas, it´s the US…no surprise there. They don´t say sorry even to families whose relatives they “accidentally” kill.)

    • A.G.
      June 30, 2024 at 12:50

      p.s. A US postal inspector stealing a copy of Alice in Wonderland would make for a nice fictional episode though…

  7. June 29, 2024 at 09:03

    Thank You John

  8. Patrick Powers
    June 29, 2024 at 08:16

    Attack on privacy #217.

  9. yesxorno
    June 29, 2024 at 03:35

    Until money is removed from politics, no other problem can effectively be tackled.

    [paraphrasing] Aaron Swartz and Prof. Lawrence Lessig.

  10. Carolyn L Zaremba
    June 29, 2024 at 00:24

    This reminds me of the movie “The President’s Analyst”. It was the Phone Company that was doing the spying in the movie, but the Phone Company was an agency much like the Postal Service in that people don’t imagine that the three-letter agencies use it as a surveillance tool.

  11. gwb
    June 28, 2024 at 23:47

    Really? If the USPS is photographing every piece of personal mail, I wonder why they can’t keep track of the valuable philatelic material addressed to me that has disappeared over the past ten years.

  12. floyd gardner
    June 28, 2024 at 21:18

    About 15 years ago, I was receiving a newsletter [by mail] called The American Free Press. It is anti-govt and [today] would be called anti-semitic. When the papers stopped arriving, I complained to the editors and finally found that they were in fact being sent tp my post office. I made an appointment with the Postmistress; and she finally discovered a cardboard box with all my old issues! No explanation was given; but delivery was resumed.

  13. A.G.
    June 28, 2024 at 18:05

    Great piece! (It doesn´t have to be an essay to be important.)
    As always with Mr. Kiriakou. (Way underappreciated writer btw.)
    Since when is this “service” in place?

  14. Steve
    June 28, 2024 at 17:39

    The permanent Washington DC administrative/security state is by it’s very nature totalitarian and needs to be rigorously monitored. Sadly, it is not. The bureaucratic leviathan runs the country now and only grudgingly acknowledges the elected government when it is not outright defying it. Which is why I believe a decimation of all federal departments in long overdue, to remind them that the power resides with the electorate, not the bureaucrats.

  15. Kupenda
    June 28, 2024 at 17:04

    Thank you John. I have been experiencing very strange behavior from my postal service for the last 8-9 years. Your article explains a lot.
    First I noticed that mail that used to dribble into my rural mailbox seemed to be held and all delivered on Tuesday. Later I noticed strange chemicals on my mail. When I order things to be delivered, especially if tech devices, it seems to have unexplained delays en route and still often arrives with strange chemicals on it. Wish I could tell you which chemicals they are, I have not been able to get them tested yet. If you have more on this issue, I for one, would like to hear it. Thanks again!

  16. Loup-Bouc
    June 28, 2024 at 15:53

    If law enforcement tracks tracks you car through its GPS, law enforcement violates the 4th amendment, despite law enforcement could track it with cop cars or a helicopter, and despite your car’s movements are public events — open to any Joe Public who happens to be able to see your car. Your car’s GPS and its events are your (private) property. Your having a GPS-bearing car does not involve your submitting to any other person’s, persons’, or non-human entity’s viewing/knowing the events of your car’s GPS.

    But the USPS case is distinct.

    USPS employees must handle and scan your mail’s packaging, and USPS machines must, too. You mail and its packaging not open to the public, only to the USPS, and only within the range of USPS mail-delivery purposes. Still, just as you submit to your bank’s tracking, handling, copying, and “transcribing into digital form, you submit to the USPS’s viewing, handling, tracking you mail’s packaging. And the USPS keeps mail packaging information (names, addresses……) to control processing/delivery quality and to be able to find mail not delivered or markedly late. You know that such is USPS conduct. Hence you submit to it, even to the privacy-breach involved, when you send mail by USPS.

    The FBI can view your bank records witho0ut violating the 4th amendment despite your bank is your fiduciary and bears to you a duty of confidentiality. Compare, inter alia:
    (a) hxxps://
    (b) hxxps://
    (c) hxxps://

    Since you submit to USPS employees’ and machines’ viewing, handling, tracking, and recording your mail’s packaging and traveling, if the FBI can view/track your bank records, a fortiori the FBI can view USPS records of your mail’s packaging-information and travels. An ugly truth.

  17. Jim Thomas
    June 28, 2024 at 15:45

    John, Thank you for writing this article. I have been angry about the practice of photographing the mail ever since I learned about it. I learned about it, of course, when I began receiving daily emails containing copies of the photographs of my the mail I would receive that day. It is an outrageous violation of the Fourth Amendment and our right to privacy. .. or has the bill or rights been effectively repealed by “our” government? If not, it is not for lack of the ongoing effort to do so. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that the Supreme Court dodged and weaved its way to avoid addressing the issue of whether Biden’s censorship regime violates our first amendment free speech and free press rights. Both political parties are pushing strongly to eradicate our civil liberties and put firmly in place the authoritarian state.

    • Bill Todd
      June 29, 2024 at 00:42

      “Both political parties are pushing strongly to eradicate our civil liberties and put firmly in place the authoritarian state.”

      Our Constitution gives us a good way to fix that: wake up and vote both major parties out of office and replace them with worthwhile representation.

    • Steve
      June 29, 2024 at 03:46

      That’s the way the mass, automated processing of mail works throughout the planet. That’s why you get prompt mail deliveries, minimal people in the loop. That’s not so much the problem, the real problem is who, apart from the mail service, has access to the mail data.

  18. Steve
    June 28, 2024 at 15:01

    I suspect a similar programme exists in the UK. The processing systems already capture images and digital copies and is operated using USA technology by Lockheed. Maybe there is no links to the spooks, who knows ?

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