Attorney General Gonzales and Mail Openings

The New York Daily News is reporting that the Bush administration has asserted the legal authority to search and inspect the mail without having to get search warrants. 

There is an “emergency” exception to the warrant requirement.  For example, if some bank robbers decide to take hostages and start making demands, a SWAT team can move in without a warrant.  When the emergency exception is ordinarily relied upon, the search is done out in the open - so the government’s actions are transparent.  The homeowner or business owner knows fairly quickly that agents conducted a search and can bring any abuse to the attention of the news media, the courts, or the legislature.  Those “checks” on police power are not in place with respect to mail openings.  We just don’t know what may be going on at the post office before we get our mail.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) specifically asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about mail openings at a 2005 hearing.  Here’s the exchange:

REP. JEFF FLAKE (R-AZ): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, General Gonzales.

Let me just try to bring this to the real world for a minute here, the real-world scenario, and see if we’re on the same page here. You may be familiar with one of the Fox News analysts, Andrew Napolitano, who wrote an op-ed a while ago. And let me just read a portion of it and get your response to it.

Quote: “The government can now, for the first time in American history, without obtaining the approval of a court, read a person’s mail and prosecute a person on the basis of what is in the mail.” Is that an accurate reflection of the law?

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: I’m not – I don’t believe it is an accurate reflection of the law. Again, if we’re talking about the exercise of authorities under the Patriot Act, in most cases it does involve the department going to a federal judge and getting permission to use a proposed authority.

REP. FLAKE: I understand in most cases. But is that possible now, for the first time in history, without obtaining the approval of a court, to read a person’s mail and then prosecute the person on the basis of what is in that mail?

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: That sounds to me like it would be a search. And I think that you would need probable cause to do that. You would need a warrant to do that, and you’d have to go to a federal judge in those cases, except, I think, in very rare circumstances, if in the event of an emergency. But even then you’d have to go to a judge after the fact and explain what you’ve done. So I don’t think that what he has said is accurate.

REP. FLAKE: But it would be accurate if you say in certain cases you would have to go to the judge after the fact.

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: But those are very rare and extraordinary circumstances. And so –

REP. FLAKE: How many of those circumstances have we had?

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: I’m not aware of any.

REP. FLAKE: None?

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: I’m not aware of any.

REP. FLAKE: If there are some, could you get back to my office with that information?

ATTY GEN. GONZALES: I can certainly look into it.

Source: Hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, April 6, 2005.

I will be blogging about this some more later, but I expect the Senate and House Judiciary Committees will immediately begin to investigate this matter and call Mr. Gonzales in for questioning.

For background on the constitutional record of the Bush administration, read this.