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Mohan also declined to say how often or in what volume CBP might be opening mail.
January 6, 2006 6:48 PM   Subscribe

Private Mail--Not. ...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. ...the agency can, will and does open mail coming to U.S. citizens that originates from a foreign country whenever it’s deemed necessary. ...
posted by amberglow (54 comments total)

 
and the original story, from Lawrence, KS--Retiree claims privacy invasion
‘Border Protection’ opened letter to KU professor

posted by amberglow at 6:51 PM on January 6, 2006


Sucks to live in America.
posted by oxala at 6:57 PM on January 6, 2006


Hard to believe, expecially because if it's true there is some evidence of tampering..why leave it ? That suggest the presence of some kind of "law" allowing opening of letters in the interest of national security..which doesn't make sense..if it was a secret op, why have the guy know ?
posted by elpapacito at 7:02 PM on January 6, 2006


This isn't anything new.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:09 PM on January 6, 2006


Xcept the Mission is Accomplised and the War against Terrist is a neverending one, like war on drugs and war on porn and war on freedom
posted by elpapacito at 7:11 PM on January 6, 2006


Like the war on punctuation.
posted by Hildegarde at 7:12 PM on January 6, 2006


This isn't anything new.

the Philippines is not our enemy, and we're not at war. They're not the equivalent of Germans and Japanese by any stretch of the imagination.
posted by amberglow at 7:17 PM on January 6, 2006


The government has been doing this for years. Just like the border agents can -- and do -- inspect your items when you enter a port of entry. They are looking for contraband like drugs and porn. But now they're also looking for terrorist plots.

I believe many other countries do this as well.
posted by birdherder at 7:17 PM on January 6, 2006


So? This makes us safer. I'm all for it. I am also a tool who doesn't believe anything I write.
posted by StrasbourgSecaucus at 7:20 PM on January 6, 2006


Eneverway I eednay ootay endsay a eicepay of ailmay, I ustjay ecretleysay ncodeay it so the uthoritiesay ontday owknay atwhay I am ayingsay. Aseay easypay.
posted by jimmythefish at 7:26 PM on January 6, 2006


Sucks to live in America.

And the price of stamps on examined mail just went up too!!

jealous?
posted by Peter H at 7:46 PM on January 6, 2006


jimmythefish:

Actually pretty true. Back in the day I used to work for two commodity brokers who had a tax lawyer brother in the Lompoc pen. So, every time they called, they would use their native language, Latvian, which drove the Feds nuts. This I know from, ummm, observing threatening letters on one of their desks (we shared an office).
posted by Samizdata at 7:50 PM on January 6, 2006


They are mainly looking for child porn, especially from the Philippines.
posted by smackfu at 7:58 PM on January 6, 2006


Yes it sucks, but guess what. There is a HUGE problem in the Phillipines. I know Phillipino Nationals who live in the states who feel they must disguise themselves when visiting P.I. for fear of kidnapping and blackmail. It's very real, and the problem exists with Muslim Phillipino Extremists. Look it up, I don't have time to illustrate it.
posted by snsranch at 7:58 PM on January 6, 2006


Was his friend Christiane Amanpour?
posted by caddis at 8:05 PM on January 6, 2006


They are mainly looking for child porn, especially from the Philippines.

So "Homeland Security" includes preventing the importation of pornography? What, are they going to claim Al Qaeda is funded by child porn sales, too?
posted by Nelson at 8:12 PM on January 6, 2006


Nelson, the Customs Service is part of the DHS now.
posted by birdherder at 8:19 PM on January 6, 2006


There is a HUGE problem in the Phillipines...Look it up, I don't have time to illustrate it.

If you don't have time to support your argument, I don't have time to give a shit about it.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:24 PM on January 6, 2006


ok
posted by snsranch at 8:31 PM on January 6, 2006


Don't mean to be a dick, I'm actually just really busy and thought that the comment could lead to another ave of discussion.
posted by snsranch at 8:37 PM on January 6, 2006


I've got big problems when my federal government does any type of surveillance on individual citizens without consent of a judge. I'd like at least one other branch of my government to approve of this type of thing. It keeps the harrassment and mavericking down to a minimum. I can't imagine they are sending every deputy of Homeland security to law school so how exactly do they know to keep within the bounds of the Constitution? If they had probable cause that either party in this correspondence had something to do with terrorism then they should have no problem convincing a judge to create a warrant. It's called checks and balances.
posted by any major dude at 8:47 PM on January 6, 2006


You know what else? Every time I come into the US, a customs agent from the DHS opens up my bag and roots around my underwear. And a few times, even Canadian customs has opened personal packages that I've received from the States - they say it's to verify the contents, but I don't know what to think.
posted by loquax at 8:47 PM on January 6, 2006


The same agents can also search your laptop when you come in. Not for explosives, but for content. (I swear there was a AskMe question about this in the last week but I can't find it.)
posted by smackfu at 8:50 PM on January 6, 2006


Just use email! oh wait
posted by null terminated at 8:53 PM on January 6, 2006


smackfu : I swear there was a AskMe question about this in the last week but I can't find it.

That'd be this one.
posted by hangashore at 9:21 PM on January 6, 2006


one of the more bogus SCOTUS decisions was the reading of "envelope" in the 1866 revenue control statute as to include post envelopes (the Ramsey case), while the actual language of the statute was ONLY talking about bulk parcels, not the post.

Stevens' dissent:

Under the earlier practice, which had been consistently followed for 105 years, customs officials were not allowed to open foreign mail except in the presence, and with the consent, of the addressees,1 unless of course a warrant supported by probable cause had been first obtained. There are five reasons why I am convinced that Congress did not authorize the kind of secret searches of private mail that the Executive here conducted.>
...
Second, the legislative history of the 1866 statute unambiguously discloses that this very concern was voiced during debate by Senator Howe, and that he was assured by the sponsor of the legislation that the bill would not authorize the examination of the United States mails. This colloquy is too plain to be misunderstood:

"Mr. HOWE. The second and third sections of this bill speak of the seizure, search, and examination of all trunks, packages, and envelopes. It seems to me that language is broad enough to cover the United States mails. I suppose it is not the purpose of the bill to authorize the examination of the United States mails.
"Mr. MORRILL [sponsor of the bill]. Of course not.
"Mr. HOWE. I propose to offer an amendment to prevent such a construction.
"Mr. EDMUNDS. There is no danger of such a construction being placed upon this language. It is the language usually employed in these bills.
"Mr. HOWE. If gentlemen are perfectly confident that it will bear no such construction, and will receive no such construction, I do not care to press it.
"The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Wisconsin withdraws his amendment."3


It's amazing that Stevens is still on the court, 30 years after this decision. I'm not religious, but I'm praying for his health every fricking day.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 9:22 PM on January 6, 2006


We already do this in Canada. I used to work for UPS at an airport as a Customs helper dude. Customs would send a list of the packages that they wanted to see for the night (or morning, they came over twice daily if I recall correctly), I'd pull them off the racks and open them. Usually the requested items were packages, but often it would just be your regular UPS letter envelope. (One once had a pancake in it, but I digress...) I'm surprised that this is news, actually. Customs does these sorts of things...
posted by jikel_morten at 9:35 PM on January 6, 2006


This sucks, but it's been going on forever — blaming the current climate only trivializes the problem. At a workshop at the National Archives, we were given as an exercise random boxes from a collection and expected to ascertain what the collection was, its arrangement, temporal and geographical coverage, etc. The sample chosen was a series of material seized by the Post Office over the years (IIRC, our box was from the late 1930s). Most of the material was far from seditious; generally it seemed to have been seized because it was written in foreign languages (publications subscribed to by recent immigrants) obscure enough that the PO couldn't be bothered to find anyone who could read it.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:42 PM on January 6, 2006


Death to all modifiers
posted by allen.spaulding at 10:02 PM on January 6, 2006


I'm confused...Customs has always, as far as I've ever known, opened international packages and letters from/to foreign countries. Not all packages and letters, but some. Now Customs has become part of Homeland Security, and so Homeland Security opens international packages. What is so surprising or new about this?
posted by Bugbread at 10:32 PM on January 6, 2006


I think the surprising and new is that Customs is now part of DHS.

It was a very poor idea to incorporate long-established agencies into DHS. Everyone knows Customs can investigate a package. It's initially a little alarming to hear that DHS is doing it.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:26 PM on January 6, 2006


jikel_morten - Do you happen to remember which mefite was sending the pancake to which other mefite?
posted by Cranberry at 11:41 PM on January 6, 2006


How long before the entire U.S. government is "part of the DHS"?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:59 AM on January 7, 2006


elpapacito :

"Hard to believe, expecially because if it's true there is some evidence of tampering..why leave it ? That suggest the presence of some kind of "law" allowing opening of letters in the interest of national security..which doesn't make sense..if it was a secret op, why have the guy know ?"

Because US inteligent SUCKS man.
posted by zouhair at 4:10 AM on January 7, 2006


And when I see this, the first thought that came to my mind is that Bin Laden has won !!
posted by zouhair at 4:12 AM on January 7, 2006


Harly new. Over 40 years ago I sent to Mexico city to a well-known bookstore for a copy of a Henry Miller book, a book banned in the US. The store was known for its collections and used by scholars world-wide. My letter came back, unopened, and stamped by US postal authorities that No Mail Can Go to This Address...wow.
or, as one guy's motto aboive his desk at NSA has it: In god we trust. All others we monitor.
posted by Postroad at 4:30 AM on January 7, 2006


Damn with the "hardly new" pseudoargument tautology. Anything repeating more then once is "hardly new" and the fact that it's repeating doesn't imply it's irrelevant or that nothing needs to be done or not done about that
posted by elpapacito at 6:26 AM on January 7, 2006


... Maybe the people who are upset should ask their senators and congressional representatives to pass legislation forbidding the U.S. customs service from opening mail...
posted by bugmuncher at 6:56 AM on January 7, 2006


This isn't anything new.

This isn't anything new, either. care to bring it back?

No Mail Can Go to This Address...wow.

judging from your blog, maybe your hand was trembling a little too much when you wrote down the address?
posted by matteo at 7:10 AM on January 7, 2006


"This isn't anything new."

This isn't anything new, either. care to bring it back?

No. What's your point?

That's bad and unnew, this is bad and unnew. But what's the point? We may as well post articles about people suddenly realizing that one day they're going to die, or that cancer can kill you.

(This isn't a callout on the posting of the article, per se. It's just me finding this whole thing surreal: it's been very public information that customs opens packages and letters, for years and years. It's been public information that customs is now part of DHS. I just find it weird that this retired professor was so surprised, that MSNBC decided to write an article about how a professor was surprised, and that amberglow decided to link to MSNBC's article about a professor being surprised).
posted by Bugbread at 7:33 AM on January 7, 2006


I am currently living in Dublin, Ireland, while going to grad school. Flying home to the US for Xmas this year involved going through an inspection at Customs in Chicago and then going back through security before my bag could be re-checked for LAX. Coming back to Dublin this week involved an Irish customs officer talking to another while we streamed through the wide customs berth.

Upon arriving to my apartment and checking my mail, I discovered that one of my Xmas cards had been opened and resealed somewhere along the route between LA and Dublin. I sure whoever opened it was disappointed to find out that my grandparents had made a "generous" donation to Meals on Wheels on my behalf.

Before you know it Sister Sam and Meals on Wheels will be on the DHS hit list... ;op
posted by msjen at 10:02 AM on January 7, 2006


msjen, I hope your grandparents' donation wasn't cash. Because sometimes cash has a way of disappearing when your belongings are "inspected".
posted by Nelson at 11:13 AM on January 7, 2006


Banned books or requests for them i can understand (esp 40+ yrs ago when they were legally banned), but that means they were opening all letters to that address, or to all addresses in Mexico, no? I've heard similar about steroids/prescription drugs coming from Mexican pharmacies as a current example.

bugbread, i really am surprised. What possible security reason do they have to open his letter?, and when you connect it to all the other invasive things going on, it means something. Are all professors suspect now? Are all Philipinos suspect now? (there are hundreds of thousands of them in NY alone) Is all foreign mail suspect now? Why?
posted by amberglow at 11:40 AM on January 7, 2006


The thing is, despite my own general agreement with what bugbread said in his last comment, that choices still have to be made by those who watch. Obviously(?), the DHS is not opening every single piece of mail sent or received internationally by people living in the United States. They did target this specific letter by this specific professor for a reason. It may have been a bad reason. Then again, they may be looking at mail randomly, supposing that here and there they'll find something interesting.
posted by bingo at 12:41 PM on January 7, 2006


Then again, they may be looking at mail randomly, supposing that here and there they'll find something interesting.

If I had to guess, I would bet that this is correct. Plus, the letter was from the Philippines, home of various violent enemies of the US, plus the sender's name or a variant may have been on a flagged list, as might the address or town the letter was coming from. The government has longs lists of known (current and former) addresses of foreign agents, criminals, smugglers, pornographers, etc. Perhaps she had just moved? Perhaps she's using a shared mailbox? Absent any plausible valid reason DHS would be specifically targeting either person involved in the communication (as seems to be the consensus in this thread and in the MSNBC report), and absent overwhelming reports from all quarters of mail being (very obviously and non-secretively) read, is the simplest explanation not that there is nothing particularly out of the ordinary or insidious going on here? Just normal, run-of-the mill random or semi-random customs inspection. After all, the whole controversy over NSA wiretapping is not the wiretapping itself, it's the fact that it was secret and against the law, two things this letter reading was most certainly not.
posted by loquax at 2:00 PM on January 7, 2006


amberglow : "bugbread, i really am surprised. What possible security reason do they have to open his letter?, and when you connect it to all the other invasive things going on, it means something. Are all professors suspect now? Are all Philipinos suspect now? (there are hundreds of thousands of them in NY alone) Is all foreign mail suspect now? Why?"

Amberglow: Just for clarity, although I am saying that this isn't anything new, that doesn't mean I necessarily agree with Customs' policy of opening mail. I understand the need to open packages (inspection for drug/porn/etc. smuggling), but unless they're worried about people sending sheets of acid, I don't get the need to open flat letters.
posted by Bugbread at 4:32 PM on January 7, 2006


(as an aside, there were 62,000 Filipino-Americans in NYC in 2000)
posted by loquax at 5:20 PM on January 7, 2006


So why open this letter? my questions about who is suspect are still waiting for an answer. And is every letter from the Phillipines being opened or no?

loquax: this says 300,000 in the NY metro area
posted by amberglow at 8:38 PM on January 7, 2006


So why open this letter? my questions about who is suspect are still waiting for an answer. And is every letter from the Philippines being opened or no?

We'll never know. Why did Canada customs decide to open my package with a baseball jersey inside from California instead of a package that arrived the same day full of papers and things from Romania? "Suspects" are probably those that are suspected of involvement with illicit activities (the full spectrum, not just terrorism, and I would bet anything that the reason this letter was opened was related more to child pornography than anything else), and especially suspect is likely correspondence from areas that are known to harbour enemies of the US. Every letter from the Philippines is certainly not being opened, for a variety of reasons, but I'm sure than per capita, more letters from the Philippines (and Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, etc) are officially opened and inspected than letters from Canada or say, Switzerland.

I don't like it either, in the abstract, but the reality is that if you don't control materials entering the country, any domestic regulation is rendered impotent, or at least severely compromised. And keep in mind that this inspection was 100% legal and above board. There is no right to privacy involved in the importing or exporting of materials accross the border. The lesson is that if your correspondance is of a nature that you would not like the US government to see, don't use a method that would put the correspondance in the hands of a customs official before it reaches its destination. Do you propose that customs should not inspect parcels, letters and luggage at all for any sort of contraband? If not, do you propose that they shouldn't engage in some sort of risk assesment and analysis when it comes to deciding which materials to inspect?

loquax: this says 300,000 in the NY metro area


Not that it really matters, but that link said NY/NJ, with the biggest concentration in Jersey City. I've always known a number of about 50k for NYC proper. I guess that for you folks NJ is practically NYC anyways. For what it's worth, didn't mean to nitpick.
posted by loquax at 12:32 AM on January 8, 2006


Do you propose that customs should not inspect parcels, letters and luggage at all for any sort of contraband? If not, do you propose that they shouldn't engage in some sort of risk assesment and analysis when it comes to deciding which materials to inspect?

The fact that only a tiny fraction of air cargo is inspected at all makes the whole enterprise suspect--and that's not even mentioning the whole unsolved anthrax thing. Right now only some is inspected and we don't know the reasons why, nor even if it's being done by legal means. We have a right to know what would make our letters (not parcel) suspect.
posted by amberglow at 7:36 AM on January 8, 2006


If they published their heuristics, bad guys could take advantage of that to disguise their letters/parcels so as to get by without being inspected.

Which would rather defeat the purpose. By the very nature of the game (which you are caught up in but not a participant of) each side's players must keep their strategies secret.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:24 AM on January 8, 2006


“This process isn’t something we’re trying to hide.” I appreciate that they say that, I think. I've always assumed that packages from overseas are sometimes opened. Do I feel better that there is a note saying it was opened? Now that I think about it, maybe ignorance actually is bliss.
posted by tomplus2 at 10:06 AM on January 8, 2006


yep. me too. from thailand.

but my friends have had all THEIR stuff opened too. (multiple boxes from miltiple senders) I kept the tape because its cool. Maybe i can sell it on EBAY.
posted by KantoKing at 4:14 PM on January 8, 2006


oxala writes "Sucks to live in America"

Practically any country with a functioning border can open incoming mail. There is a fun story from the punch card era about a progam being shipped to France that addresses this power.

Nelson writes "What, are they going to claim Al Qaeda is funded by child porn sales"

Why not we all now "know" that they are funded by movie and music copyright infringement.
posted by Mitheral at 9:05 AM on January 9, 2006


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