President Bush quietly has claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans' mail without a judge's warrant. Bush asserted the new authority...
WASHINGTON — President Bush quietly has claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans’ mail without a judge’s warrant.
Bush asserted the new authority Dec. 20 after signing legislation that overhauls some postal regulations. He then issued a “signing statement” that declared his right to open mail under emergency conditions, contrary to existing law and contradicting the bill he had just signed, according to experts who have reviewed it.
A White House spokeswoman disputed claims that the move gives Bush any new powers, saying the Constitution allows such searches.
Still, the move, one year after The New York Times’ disclosure of a secret program that allowed warrantless monitoring of Americans’ phone calls and e-mail, caught Capitol Hill by surprise.
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“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.
“You have to be concerned,” a senior U.S. official agreed. “It takes executive-branch authority beyond anything we’ve ever known.”
A top Senate Intelligence Committee aide promised a review of Bush’s move.
“It’s something we’re going to look into,” the aide said.
Most of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act deals with mundane changes. But the legislation also explicitly reinforces 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.”
Bush cited as examples the need to “protect human life and safety against hazardous materials and the need for physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection.”
White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore denied Bush was claiming new authority.
“In certain circumstances — such as with the proverbial ‘ticking bomb’ — the Constitution does not require warrants for reasonable searches,” she said.
Bush, however, cited “exigent circumstances” that could refer to an imminent danger or a long-standing state of emergency.
Critics noted the administration could obtain a warrant quickly from a court or a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge, and the Postal Service could block delivery.
But the Bush White House appears to be taking no chances, national-security experts agreed.
Martin said Bush is “using the same legal reasoning” as he did with warrantless eavesdropping.