Boycott The Post Office!

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