U.S. Post Office to brief lawmakers on its covert surveillance program

Jana Winter
·Contributor
·4-min read
Postal service mail boxes
Mike Blake/Reuters

The head of the U.S. Post Office law enforcement division running a covert social media collection program is expected to brief lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee Wednesday morning about its surveillance work.

Yahoo News last week revealed the existence of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s Internet Covert Operations Program, known as iCOP, which has been monitoring social media for information about political protests. The work involves having analysts trawl through social media sites to look for what one Post Office intelligence bulletin describes as “inflammatory” postings and then sharing that information across government and law enforcement agencies.

“Analysts with the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP) monitored significant activity regarding planned protests occurring internationally and domestically on March 20, 2021,” says the March 16 intelligence bulletin, marked as “law enforcement sensitive” and distributed through the Department of Homeland Security’s fusion centers.

The bulletin obtained by Yahoo News focused on sites such as Parler, Telegram and Facebook known for hosting right-wing accounts. News of the program, and its apparent focus on right-wing activities, sparked an immediate outcry from Republican lawmakers, who demanded answers.

They may get some of those answers Wednesday morning.

“We just got notice that there will be a member briefing with USPS on Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. with Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale to discuss the Internet Covert Operations Program,” Natalie Johnson, a spokesperson for Rep. Nancy Mace, told Yahoo News.

Mace, of South Carolina, was one the 30 Republicans who sent a letter April 21 to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy last week demanding a briefing following the Yahoo News article on the program.

Gary Barksdale
Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale. (Olivier Douliery/Pool via AP)

“Recent reporting indicates the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has been operating “a program that tracks and collects Americans’ social media posts,” the letter states.

“iCOP raises serious questions about the federal government’s ongoing surveillance of, and encroachment upon, Americans’ private lives and discourse.”

The lawmakers asked for a briefing on the program by Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale no later than Wednesday, April 28, “regarding this alleged encroachment into the private lives of Americans by a component of our mail delivery agency.”

Republicans are leading the way to investigate this program that caught almost everyone off guard when Yahoo News revealed iCOP had been used to monitor and collect social media data — including the real names and identifying details for U.S. citizens that would typically be redacted in reports from agencies such as the DHS and the FBI.

The DHS did not immediately return Yahoo News’ request for comment.

The program has also raised new concerns with experts who study the privacy and civil liberties implications of social media collection by law enforcement.

Louis DeJoy
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. (Jim Watson/Pool via AP)

“While we have long known about the use of social media by the DHS and the FBI, we did not know about the post office program,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty & National Security Program.

Thirty Republican lawmakers, led by James Comer and Jim Jordan, signed this letter, which was cc’d to Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, but her involvement was unclear. Her office did not respond to Yahoo News’ requests for comment.

Jerry Nadler, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, was also named and copied on the letter to DeJoy. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Democrats — even lawmakers who in the past have been outspoken critics of domestic surveillance —have been unusually quiet about the Post Office’s program. The offices of Sens. Ron Wyden, Elizabeth Warren, Edward J. Markey and Brian Schatz, who have all previously written to the Department of Homeland Security over concerns about domestic surveillance, including social media collection, did not respond to a request for comment.

Jim Jordan and James Comer
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, left, and ranking member Rep. James Comer, R-Ky. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool via Getty images)

Wyden has been perhaps the most vocal critic of the government’s domestic surveillance programs, particularly the FBI’s controversial warrantless surveillance program. On Monday, after The New York Times reported on a declassified ruling by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that extended the program, Wyden again voiced his concerns.

“The government violated the law dozens of times with its backdoor searches of Americans’ communications collected without a warrant under Section 702 of FISA. This must change. ANY search of Americans’ communications under 702 needs a warrant,” he tweeted.

The level of Democratic interest in the program could change if it turns out the covert internet program was collecting social media information on past Black Lives Matter protests. The date this program was launched is one key piece of information that may come out of Wednesday’s congressional briefing.

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