By Joseph S. Enoch
January 4, 2007
While most of Congress was preparing for the holiday season, President George Bush quietly asserted his authority by giving the government the right to search your mail without a warrant.
While signing the mostly mundane Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act into law Dec. 20, Bush added a "signing statement" that awarded him a vague authority to open individuals' mail under emergency circumstances.
That signing statement contradicts existing laws and statements found within the text of the law he had just signed, experts said.
"Despite the President's statement that he may be able to circumvent a basic privacy protection, the new postal law continues to prohibit the government from snooping into people's mail without a warrant," Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) told the New York Daily News.
According to the statement:
"The executive branch shall construe subsection 404(c) of title 39, as enacted by subsection 1010(e) of the Act, which provides for opening of an item of a class of mail otherwise sealed against inspection, in a manner consistent, to the maximum extent permissible, with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances, such as to protect human life and safety against hazardous materials, and the need for physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection."
The news of this unprecedented authority comes one year after Bush got his hand slapped for tapping Americans' phones.
The White House is saying that this authority is nothing new.
"In certain circumstances -- such as with the proverbial 'ticking bomb' -- the Constitution does not require warrants for reasonable searches," White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore told the Daily News.
But experts fear Bush could use this reaffirmed authority to read endless stacks of U.S. mail.
"You have to be concerned," a senior U.S. official told the Daily News. "It takes Executive Branch authority beyond anything we've ever known,"
A "signing statement" is the loose authority for the President to add provisions to a bill when he signs it into law. The practice has come under particular criticism during Bush's two terms because he has used it more than 130 times and his statements have received more than 750 formal challenges.
One other recent controversial signing statement was added to the McCain Detainee Amendment. In the statement, Bush essentially gave himself the authority to determine what is considered torture.