WASHINGTON Leslie James Pickering noticed something odd in his mail last September: a handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home.
"Show all mail to supv" supervisor "for copying prior to going out on the street," read the card. It included Pickering's name, address and the type of mail that needed to be monitored. The word "confidential" was highlighted in green.
"It was a bit of a shock to see it," said Pickering, who owns a small bookstore in Buffalo, N.Y. More than a decade ago, he was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group labeled eco-terrorists by the FBI. Postal officials subsequently confirmed they were indeed tracking Pickering's mail but told him nothing else.
As the world focuses on the high-tech spying of the National Security Agency, the misplaced card offers a rare glimpse inside the seemingly low-tech but prevalent snooping of the U.S. Postal Service.
Pickering was targeted by a longtime surveillance system called mail covers, but that is only a forerunner of a vastly more expansive effort, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.
Together, the two programs show that snail mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the NSA has given to telephone calls and email.
The mail covers program, used to monitor Pickering, is more than a century old but is still considered a powerful tool. At the request of law enforcement officials, postal workers record information from the outside of letters and parcels before they are delivered. (Opening the mail requires a warrant.) The information is sent to whatever law enforcement agency asked for it. Tens of thousands of pieces of mail each year undergo this scrutiny.
The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program was created after the anthrax attacks in late 2001 that killed five people, including two postal workers. Highly secret, it seeped into public view last month when the FBI cited it in its investigation of ricin-laced letters sent to President Barack Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It enables the Postal Service to retroactively track mail correspondence at the request of law enforcement. No one disputes that it is sweeping.
"In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime," said Mark D. Rasch, the former director of the Justice Department's computer crime unit, who worked on several fraud cases using mail covers. "Now it seems to be 'Let's record everyone's mail so in the future we might go back and see who you were communicating with.' Essentially you've added mail covers on millions of Americans."
But law enforcement officials said mail covers and the automatic mail tracking program are invaluable, even in an era of smartphones and email.
In a criminal complaint filed June 7 in U.S. District Court in Eastern Texas, the FBI said a postal investigator tracing the ricin letters was able to narrow the search to Shannon Guess Richardson, an actress in New Boston, Texas, by examining information from the front and back images of 60 pieces of mail scanned immediately before and after the tainted letters sent to Obama and Bloomberg showing return addresses near her home. Richardson had originally accused her husband of mailing the letters, but investigators determined that he was at work during the time they were mailed.
In 2007, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the local police in Charlotte, N.C., used information gleaned from the mail cover program to arrest Sallie Wamsley-Saxon and her husband, Donald, charging both with running a prostitution ring that took in $3 million over six years. Prosecutors said it was one of the largest and most successful such operations in the country.
Investigators also used mail covers to help track banking activity and other businesses the couple operated under different names.
Other agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services, have used mail covers to track drug smugglers and Medicare fraud.
"It's a treasure trove of information," said James Wedick, a former FBI agent who spent 34 years at the agency and who said he used mail covers in a number of investigations, including one that led to the prosecution of several elected officials in California on corruption charges.
"Looking at just the outside of letters and other mail, I can see who you bank with, who you communicate with all kinds of useful information that gives investigators leads that they can then follow up on with a subpoena."
But, he said: "It can be easily abused because it's so easy to use and you don't have to go through a judge to get the information. You just fill out a form."
Law enforcement officials need warrants to open the mail, although President George W. Bush asserted in a signing statement in 2007 that the federal government had the authority to open mail without warrants in emergencies or foreign intelligence cases.
Court challenges to mail covers have generally failed because judges have ruled that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for information contained on the outside of a letter.
Officials in both the Bush and Obama administrations, in fact, have used the mail-cover court rulings to justify the NSA's surveillance programs, saying the electronic monitoring amounts to the same thing as a mail cover. Congress briefly conducted hearings on mail cover programs in 1976, but has not revisited the issue.
The program has led to sporadic reports of abuse. In Arizona, Mary Rose Wilcox, a Maricopa County supervisor, was awarded nearly $1 million in May 2012 by a federal judge after winning a lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his immigration raids in Arizona, who, among other things, obtained mail covers from the Postal Service to track her mail. The case is being appealed.
Postal officials refused to discuss either mail covers or the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program.