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How the Postal Service Became Addicted to Secrecy

Not only is the agency spying on Americans, it's keeping its own operations shrouded in darkness.

Credit: LesPalenik/Shutterstock

By now, millions of Americans have heard the maddening and mystifying news: the United States Postal Service (USPS) is snooping on you. That’s right, America’s mail carrier has been compiling social media posts talking about protests and posting screenshots in intelligence bulletins.

Just as quickly as these revelations made their way across the media, the story withered on the vine as attention shifted elsewhere. Yet Postal Watergate (Postalgate) is only the tip of the iceberg for an agency shrouded in secrecy. The USPS refuses to open their books for independent financial analysis. It won’t even release basic information about package deliveries, even tire purchases.

It’s time for lawmakers to demand full transparency from the struggling agency.

When Yahoo News reported in April that the USPS was “quietly running a program that tracks and collects Americans’ social media posts, including those about planned protests,” the response was outrage. Yet despite the outcry, the agency will continue running the program, which it confusingly claims is not in fact a “program” because it is “incident-related.” Semantics aside, it’s clear that the USPS is intent on having its own surveillance program under wraps instead of, say, requesting timely, relevant intelligence from other agencies such as the FBI.

Unfortunately, this rogue, secretive approach is par for the course for the USPS. The agency routinely refuses to release data, spurning Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that could help independent researchers and analysts pinpoint its many problems.

In fiscal year 2019, the agency issued full denials to more than 35 percent of processed and finalized FOIA requests. This makes the USPS moderately more transparent than the CIA (~55 percent), but considerably more tight-lipped than NASA (~11 percent), the Department of Justice (6 percent), and the Department of Homeland Security (~2 percent). That’s quite an anomaly, given that the latter three agencies and departments routinely deal with sensitive intelligence that has national security implications.

A quick trip to the Inspector General’s (IG) website reveals the sort of information that the agency prefers to keep secret. Some heavily redacted reports hint that USPS leadership isn’t happy with the IG pointing out flaws in the postage reselling program, which results in commercial consumers who would have used USPS anyway benefiting from special discounts.

A (still heavily redacted) IG report, released thanks to a FOIA request by the Capitol Forum, claims that management’s hostility toward investigating the reselling program amounts to an “attack on the independence of the OIG and an attempt to keep important work from being disclosed to critical stakeholders.” While a thick sludge of black ink prevents folks from seeing exactly what the IG found about the reselling program, USPS leadership’s push for secrecy speaks for itself. The program is estimated to cost taxpayers more than $200 million per year, which doesn’t bode well for an agency with $188 billion in unfunded liabilities.

Lawmakers have largely failed to address this disturbing level of secrecy, opting instead to focus on the ailing organization’s finances. While it is important to get the USPS back into the black, this mission is made considerably more difficult by its reluctance to share its information. Without critical details about USPS purchases and the agency’s reselling program, policymakers are left in the dark about the true extent of the agency’s financial problems. It is hard to solve a puzzle when the most critical pieces have gone missing.

Lawmakers ought to press the USPS to release more information on a timely basis and open up about its deeply disturbing spying program. The agency can certainly be reformed, but not unless the American people have access to all the relevant information.

Ross Marchand is a senior fellow for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

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