Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 7, 2006

Non-story of the day: CBP opens international mail

Filed under: DHS News,Privacy and Security — by Christian Beckner on January 7, 2006

This story by MSNBC (originally reported here in the Lawrence (KS) Journal-World on Dec. 20th, 2005) has thrown the blogosphere into a tizzy today:

Last month Goodman, an 81-year-old retired University of Kansas history professor, received a letter from his friend in the Philippines that had been opened and resealed with a strip of dark green tape bearing the words “by Border Protection” and carrying the official Homeland Security seal.

“I had no idea (Homeland Security) would open personal letters,” Goodman told MSNBC.com in a phone interview. “That’s why I alerted the media. I thought it should be known publicly that this is going on,” he said. Goodman originally showed the letter to his own local newspaper, the Kansas-based Lawrence Journal-World.

Can someone tell me why is this newsworthy? Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this exactly what the US Customs Service (the predecessor agency of Customs and Border Protection) has had the authority to do since its creation in 1789? And isn’t this authority spelled out in plain English on CBP’s website?

More than likely, this letter was opened not out of any terrorism-related concern, but because of the Philippines’ well-documented role as a hub for pirated intellectual property (earning a place on a USTR watch list as a result) and illegal trade in counterfeit pharmaceuticals, as CBP Asst. Commissioner Jayson Ahern told Congress last year, when he noted that in one CBP crackdown the Philippines ranked fourth among all countries as the point of origin of counterfeit pharmaceuticals.

There are certainly cases where the government has overreached on privacy and civil liberties issues, as I’ve written about in this post, and I think the media is doing a commendable job of bringing issues such as the recent disclosures about the NSA to public attention. But the media needs to do a better job of discerning between real “Big Brother” concerns and red herrings such as this story, rather than crying wolf in response to any scrap of evidence that supports a theory of malicious government overreach.

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3 Comments »

62

Comment by Michael Hampton

January 9, 2006 @ 6:17 am

As apparently the first person in the blogosphere to have picked up this story at all, I asked what reason CBP would have to open letters, which is virtually unheard of, as opposed to just packages, which it frequently does.

I still haven’t heard a straight answer.

And Word documents don’t count as plain English. In any case, that entire document is geared toward the mailing of packages, not letters.

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Comment by Christian Beckner

January 9, 2006 @ 1:24 pm

Michael,

Thanks for your comment.

I can think of a number of illicit substances – drugs, illegal pharmaceuticals, etc. – that could fit into a regular envelope, perhaps in a powdery form.

If you look at the links I provided, you’ll see that Customs does regular dragnet “surge checks” of mail coming from high-risk countries such as the Philippines, where they open all the items in one shipment. This letter probably got caught up in one of those.

Also, there’s nothing in the law that distinguishes between packages/parcels and letters, according to the CBP document. In Canada, there is a difference, and Canadian Customs can’t open anything under 30 grams without a warrant. Perhaps we should make the law more explicit and have a minimum weight standard – I’d be fine with that – but right now, there is no standard, and CBP was acting within the law.

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Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » Homeland security: why do people believe the worst?

January 15, 2006 @ 10:55 pm

[…] – The retired professor in Lawrence, Kansas who gained national media attention for the fact that Customs and Border Protection had opened a letter he received from the Philippines. Subsequent stories confirmed my immediate reaction when this story broke that this was consistent with longstanding customs enforcement authority. […]

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