U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert is taking on the post office.
Last month, Yahoo News dropped a bombshell report that’s equal parts intrigue and enigma: The U.S Postal Service has been monitoring Americans' social media, including on the messaging app Telegram and the right-leaning platform Parler.
Now, Gohmert is co-sponsoring a bill that would prevent funds from going toward that effort, which is called the Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP). The bill has the support of several prominent congressional Republicans. Florida U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz is sponsoring the bill, and Georgia U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is one of its nine co-sponsors.
An effort by the post office’s law enforcement branch, iCOP analysts surveil social media sites for “inflammatory” posts. That information is then shared across government agencies.
The program also keeps tabs on planned protests, according to a government bulletin.
Last week, Gohmert appeared on the far-right One America News Network (OAN) to condemn iCOP. There’s been enough government “spying” on American citizens through the National Security Agency, he said, referring to the NSA’s previous unconstitutional surveillance efforts.
“The only thing that Orwell got wrong was the year,” Gohmert told OAN host Kara McKinney. “It wasn’t 1984 — it’s now.”
The U.S. Postal Service apparently has deeper, darker secrets than the NSA. We don’t need any more government spying on our citizens. https://t.co/8qkxgoKSPo— Louie Gohmert (@replouiegohmert) May 7, 2021
This isn’t the first scandal the post office has faced in recent months.
Heading into the 2020 presidential election, many Americans depended on mail-in ballots to vote because of pandemic safety. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy fielded accusations that he’d intentionally slowed deliveries to benefit former President Donald Trump.
USPS’s law enforcement arm has long monitored for illegal and dangerous activities that could imperil the mail system, such as mail fraud. It has also investigated cases of anthrax, ricin and other toxic substances being sent through the mail.
Meanwhile, since the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the FBI has trawled social networking platforms to catch suspected Capitol rioters. But many privacy experts are confused by the postal service’s push to monitor Americans’ internet activity.
It’s unclear why the Postal Inspection Service kickstarted iCOP, said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program. She said it seems “very much outside the purview” of ensuring the mail system’s overall safety.
The program’s use of keyword searches is also a “blunt tool” because looking for protest-related content will return a huge number of posts, Levinson-Waldman said. Doing so may earmark posts connected to violent or criminal endeavors, but it could also flag those related to protected First Amendment activity.
“It’s not clear what purpose [iCOP] would serve in the first place,” she said, adding it raises “real concerns about infringing on people’s privacy and on their constitutionally protected rights.”
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service began monitoring social media posts after last summer’s surge of Black Lives Matter protests, according to another Yahoo article.
Officials claimed USPS wanted to safeguard against potential danger to postal buildings and workers, and because of threats made against DeJoy. Levinson-Waldman described the move as “somewhat self-serving," in part because it's uncertain to what extent those threats are legitimate.
The idea that USPS would monitor for “inflammatory” social media posts “seems questionable at best,” said Samir Jain, director of policy for the Center for Democracy & Technology. Patrolling the internet seems “fairly far afield” from the postal service’s expertise and from any legitimate mandate they would have, he said.
There’s plenty of First Amendment-protected speech people would characterize as “inflammatory,” but that is nonetheless protected, Jain said. In general, even objectionable speech shouldn’t trigger an investigation by any government agency.
Law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI and DHS, are typically better equipped to handle criminal activity, he said.
“If there was a specific threat to a post office or postal trucks or something, then you could imagine maybe, yes, they have some jurisdiction there,” Jain said. “But beyond that … it does seem quite perplexing.”
During his OAN interview, Gohmert also took USPS to task over a personal grievance: It took more than three weeks for a first-class letter he’d mailed to make it to Austin. But given that the service is busy “spying on Americans,” that “incompetence” makes sense, he said.
“They’re building a case for why we shouldn’t have a post office,” Gohmert said.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.