Kucinich, Paul Decry Mail System

Posted March 9, 2004 at 6:01pm

Asserting that a new House mail-screening procedure fails to meet “constitutional privacy” standards, Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Ron Paul (R-Texas) have renewed demands to halt the program.

The lawmakers derided the new screening procedures — in which mail is opened at an offsite facility by non-Congressional employees, removed from its envelope, inspected and then resealed — in a March 4 “Dear Colleague” letter.

“We are extremely concerned that constituent privacy is gravely endangered by these new changes,” the House Members wrote.

In the memorandum, the pair invited fellow Members to sign on to a letter addressed to House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood and Chief Administrative Office Jay Eagen seeking to halt the program. The second letter also requests “evidence” from House officials that other procedures were considered before adopting the current program.

“I have called for a halt to the new mail procedures until it can be demonstrated that other, less invasive methods of testing the mail for security threats were evaluated,” Kucinich said through a spokesman. “Congress should not leap to extremes, because doing so will compromise the privacy of the correspondence and records constituents send their Representatives.”

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) called the need to enhance mail screening “unfortunate” but added that it is highly unlikely the new program would be stopped given concerns for the safety of Congressional staff.

“I could not in good conscience stop that program,” Ney said.

Both House and Senate officials revamped mail-screening programs in mid-February, after the discovery of the toxin ricin in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) personal office prompted the temporary shutdown of the Senate’s office buildings.

Although the chambers’ new programs are similar — both open mail at offsite facilities in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of chemical or biological attacks — Kucinich raised concerns that the House utilizes a private contractor, Connecticut-based Pitney Bowes, whereas the Senate uses employees from its own post office. (Pitney Bowes also screens packages delivered to Congressional offices by private companies including FedEx and UPS.)

“It is not uncommon for constituents to send very personal information such as Social Security numbers, medical records or checks for flags,” Kucinich said. “I believe that their privacy may be compromised when their correspondence is opened and removed from the envelope by a private company at an offsite location.”

Jeff Deist, Paul’s spokesman, echoed that sentiment — “Our number one concern is privacy” — noting that any opening of mail should be done by “a House organization.”

The Sergeant-at-Arms office did not return a call seeking comment; however, in a Feb. 13 memorandum to House offices outlining the new procedure, Eagen and Livingood stated that safeguards would be used to monitor employees opening the mail and to ensure confidentiality of documents.

“This new process will focus on examining items for potential threats, not on reviewing the content of any correspondence,” the letter stated.

Kucinich and Paul, however, called those measures “inadequate,” and cited Supreme Court rulings in their March 4 letter, noting “that first class mail sent through the United States Post Office is protected by the search and seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment.”

Ney stated he is confident the current measures will keep the mail “as confidential as humanly possible” but suggested the House should eventually move to receiving all of its mail digitally.

“Digital mail is much more secure as far as reading mail,” Ney said. A digital mail program spearheaded by Ney is currently in the second stage of a pilot program.

A Kucinich spokesman said five Members — Reps. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), José Serrano (D-N.Y.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) — signed on to the formal letter Tuesday afternoon. The Ohio lawmaker expects additional support, spokesman Doug Gordon said, noting he had not conducted “aggressive outreach” since issuing the letter.