A covert U.S. Postal Service program monitoring social media for “inflammatory” posts to share the information with other law enforcement agencies, is coming under scrutiny itself by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Yahoo News reported Tuesday.
The online news organization has been reporting on the topic and discovered the federal agency was monitoring citizens social media posts and then reporting certain posts to other federal law enforcement agencies.
In a letter Monday from the Congressional Committee to U.S. Postal Service Inspector General Tammy L. Whitcomb, Committee Chairman Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Ranking Member Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., asked about the Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP), and under what authority the agency has to “conduct online intelligence operations” on citizens of the country.
“We write to express concern about recent press reports that the United States Postal Inspection Service has been using analysts from its Internet Covert Operations Program to perform intelligence operations on First Amendment activity,” the letter said.
According to Yahoo News, the agency’s Postal Inspection Service has been monitoring social media accounts of citizens since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota last year.
It then sent bulletins noting “inflammatory” posts to the Department of Homeland Security, which would then notify state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies as well as terrorism task forces throughout the nation, according to the report.
In an April Yahoo News story, Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale told the Congressional Committee that the program began in 2017 to crack down and investigate drug and firearms trafficking but moved to surveilling the protests that broke out after Floyd’s death because of the threat to the agency’s workers and buildings.
The increase in threats against Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, Barksdale told the Committee, was a “factor” to continue online surveillance.
“The chief postal inspector was unprepared to the point of incompetence,” Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., told Yahoo News at the time. “He couldn’t tell me when this program started, how much money is spent on it or where the authority to spy on Americans came from. The complete inability to give us answers to basic questions was unacceptable.”
In another Yahoo News report from May 18, the agency used fake online identities, as well as facial recognition software and other “sophisticated intelligence tools” in its activities.
“The U.S. Postal Inspection Service appears to be putting significant resources into covert monitoring of social media and the creation and use of undercover accounts,” Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Liberty & National Security Program of the Brennan Center for Justice said in the story. “If these efforts are directed toward surveilling lawful protesters, the public and Congress need to know why this is happening, under what authority and subject to what kinds of oversight and protections.”
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