Boycott The Post Office!

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According
to a
recent article by John Berlau in Insight Magazine
, since
1997, the Post Office has been spying on customers, and reporting
perfectly innocent activity to federal law enforcement. The program,
called "Under The Eagle's Eye", resulted from new regulations
created by the Clinton Treasury Department in 1997 to apply provisions
of the grossly misnamed Bank Secrecy Act to "money service
businesses" that sell financial instruments such as stored-value
cash cards, money orders, and wire transfers, as well as banks.

The
magazine was able to obtain both a program manual and a training
video [which, you'll be pleased to know, cost $90,000 of your
money to make], both of which exhibit a brazen disregard for individuals'
privacy. There are few things I learn about our government that
surprise me anymore, but I must admit I was surprised at the sheer
arrogance of some of the quotes from the manual, the video, and
the program's managers:

"The
rule of thumb is if it seems suspicious to you, then it is suspicious,"

"As
we said before, and will say again, it is better to report many
legitimate transactions that seem suspicious than let one illegal
one slip through."

"The
postal service has a responsibility to know what their legitimate
customers are doing with their instruments," Al Gillum,
a former postal inspector who now is acting program manager,
tells Insight. "If people are buying instruments outside
of a norm that the entity itself has to establish, then that's
where you start with suspicious analysis, suspicious reporting.
It literally is based on knowing what our legitimate customers
do, what activities they're involved in."

What's
also surprising that this has been going on since 1997, and very
few people outside the Post Office seem to know about it. Insight
says that most privacy advocates they interviewed didn't know about
the program until Insight told them. Representative
Ron Paul (R-Texas)
, a champion of individual privacy (and liberty
in general, I might add) "expressed both surprise and concern"
about the program, saying that the video's instructions to report
transactions as suspicious are "the reverse of what the theory
used to be: We were supposed to let guilty people go by if we were
doing harm to innocent people" when the methods of trying to
apprehend criminals violated the rights of ordinary citizens. Paul
says he may introduce legislation to stop "Under the Eagle's
Eye."

Makes
you wonder how many other government agencies are snooping on us
(besides the usual ones, of course).

The
Treasury Department regulations do not give specific examples of
suspicious activity, leaving that for the regulated companies or
agencies to determine. The Post Office has defined its own guidelines
as to what, specifically, is to be treated as "suspicious".
For example, the training video cites "a customer counting
money in the line" as suspicious! It warns that even customers
whom clerks know should be considered suspect if they "frequently
purchase money orders"! No word yet on "people who enter
via the front door" or "people who buy stamps".

Any
of you who purchase money orders through the Post Office also ought
to be aware that an "8105-A" form (requiring your date
of birth, your occupation, and a driver's license or other government-issued
ID) is required for any purchase of $3,000 or more. If, after being
asked to fill out an 8105-A, you cancel or request a smaller amount,
that's an automatic trigger for the clerk to file an "8105-B,"
the "suspicious-activity" report.

Insight
also notes that Gillum says that innocent customers "should
feel secure because the information reported about "suspicious"
customers is not automatically sent to the Treasury Department's
Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) to be shared with
law-enforcement agencies worldwide." [emphasis mine]

FinCEN
wants the Post Office to send all reports, but the postal
authorities only will send the clerks' reports if they fit "known
parameters" for suspicious activity. Oh, that's good. I feel
much better, don't you? Just like the Census Bureau, who
never shared their data with other agencies, and never assisted
in finding Japanese citizens so they could be rounded up and sent
to camps.

"We
are very sensitive to the private citizenry and their rights,"
Insight quotes Gillum as saying, apparently with a straight face.
"For what it's worth, we have every comfort level that, if
we make a report, there are all kinds of reasons to believe that
there is something going on there beyond just a legitimate purchase
of money orders." Mr. Gillum, it's worth nothing. Your empty
promises are worth nothing. You are trampling on the rights of citizens,
and I hope that they will someday wake up and do something about
it.

As
I mentioned, this chilling program is a product of the Clinton administration.
But surely George Bush, defender of our liberties, will change course,
right?

I
don't know if anyone's asked him. It is some comfort to know that
Lawrence Lindsey, now head of the Bush administration's National
Economic Council, has been critical of other similar reporting programs.
He has frequently pointed out that more than 100,000 reports are
collected on innocent bank customers for every one conviction of
money laundering.

"That
ratio of 99,999-to-1 is something we normally would not tolerate
as a reasonable balance between privacy and the collection of guilty
verdicts," Lindsey wrote in a chapter of the Competitive Enterprise
Institute's book The
Future of Financial Privacy
, published last year.

So,
will the Bush administration kill "Under the Eagle's Eye"?
Why don't you write and
ask
?

In
the meantime, if you still use the Post Office, wouldn't now be
a good time to stop? If the inefficiency and the ever-rising rates
weren't enough, shouldn't spying on customers be enough? Boycott
the Post Office! Send letters and greeting cards via e-mail. Pay
your bills on-line. Use Fed-Ex or UPS for packages. And buy your
money orders somewhere else (7-Eleven, for example. A 7-Eleven spokeswoman
said that they only file reports when absolutely required to do
so, and regulations do not require reports for the mere cancellation
of a transaction. Why does the Post Office do it then?). Do to the
Post Office what E. Ray Moore is trying to do the public schools
(see article
by Steven Yates
). Let them lose their customers, and let them
then raise prices, further accelerating the process.

I
don't wish to sound extreme here. The Post Office is not the worst
government agency. It doesn't kill people, it doesn't manipulate
the money supply, and it doesn't brainwash our children. My own
"post-woman" is very nice, and she has, on several occasions,
made some extra efforts to get a package delivered to me in a timely
manner. But what the Post Office has effectively demonstrated here
is that it is really not different from other agencies. If given
power, it will abuse it, with the severity of the abuse being proportional
to the amount of power.

June
18, 2001

Jim
Waddell [send him mail]
is a financial analyst in Poughkeepsie, NY.

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