Federal Government Can Now Open Citizens' Mail

President Bush signed a statement last month that allows the government to open mail in certain cases of urgent national importance. Critics say that this grants law enforcement the authority to open mail without a court-issued warrant. The Bush administration says the president's statement simply clarifies powers that the government already has.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Your mother may have told you, don't open other people's mail. It's impolite. It's also against the law. For the most part, only law enforcement officials with a warrant can do that.

But President Bush says there are other times that he can authorize it, namely, when foreign terrorists are threatening Americans. Critics say the president is granting the government sweeping new powers.

Here is NPR's Laura Sullivan.

LAURA SULLIVAN: The Postal Accountability and Enforcement Act isn't exactly a page-turner. It's full of rules to streamline the postal service. The only people really excited about it were marketers who will get better rates for their mailed advertisements. But then, as President Bush was signing the bill into law, he attached a signing statement. Think of it like a P.S. at the end of a letter. And this is where it gets interesting.

The signing statement says the White House believes the postal law has always given the president the right to open mail in, quote, "exigent circumstances." One of those circumstances, it says, is to collect foreign intelligence.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): The signing statement seems to signal that the president intends to expand the power of government to snoop in people's mail.

SULLIVAN: Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman from California co-sponsored the law. He said the statement surprised him and was not what any of the authors intended the law to mean.

Rep. WAXMAN: With all due respect for the president, his job is to implement the law, not re-write it. People have a right to expect that government officials won't be reading their private correspondence.

SULLIVAN: The law itself says officials can't open any mail without a warrant unless they can't make out the address and return address. Postal regulations say they can open mail, but only if there is a, quote, "immediate and substantial danger to life or limb."

Picture a box that is ticking or smoking or leaking something hazardous. White House spokesman Tony Snow said this week the signing statement is not trying to change that, but instead of opening mail when there is an immediate and substantial danger, Snow in the statement saying mail can be opened in the somewhat-more-vague exigent circumstance.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Spokesman): All this is saying is that there are provisions at law, in exigent circumstances, for such inspections. It has been thus. This is not a change in law. This is not new. It is not, as it was described in one paper, a sweeping new power by the president. It is, in fact, merely a statement of present law and present authorities granted to the president of the United States.

SULLIVAN: You might be wondering, if it's just restating the law, why does it need to be restated at all? Tony Snow had this answer.

Mr. SNOW: You find that within signing statements, these are either designed to clarify the law or, if there are Constitutional problems, to try to elucidate what those problems may be.

Mr. BRUCE FEIN (Constitutional Attorney, Former Associate Deputy Attorney General): The president is claiming authority to disregard what Congress has done and what he has signed into law.

SULLIVAN: Republican Bruce Fein is a Constitutional attorney who specialized in issues of executive power when he was associate deputy attorney general under President Reagan. President Bush has attached more signing statements to bills than any other president. But Fein says not many have contradicted the bill itself, and he believes this one does.

Mr. FEIN: He signs the bill, says I think this is kosher, and then he says right afterwards, but after all, it really isn't kosher, and I won't enforce those provisions I think are unconstitutional.

SULLIVAN: So does the president have the power he claims in the signing statement? Fein says Congress would have to challenge the statement, and the courts would have to decide. One White House official said the president just wanted to clarify that he and the attorney general have emergency powers to open mail if there's a threat. Congressman Waxman and civil liberties advocates say that's fine, but the law says you have to get a warrant first. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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