Leslie James Pickering noticed something odd in his mail last September: A handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home.
“Show all mail to supv” — supervisor — “for copying prior to going out on the street,” read the card. It included Mr. Pickering’s name, address and the type of mail that needed to be monitored. The word “confidential” was highlighted in green.
“It was a bit of a shock to see it,” said Mr. Pickering, who owns a small bookstore in Buffalo. More than a decade ago, he was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group labeled eco-terrorists by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Postal officials subsequently confirmed they were indeed tracking Mr. Pickering’s mail but told him nothing else.
Mr. Pickering was targeted by a longtime surveillance system called mail covers, but that is only a forerunner of a vastly more expansive effort, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.
Together, the two programs show that snail mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail.
For mail cover requests, law enforcement agencies simply submit a letter to the Postal Service, which can grant or deny a request without judicial review. Law enforcement officials say the Postal Service rarely denies a request. In other government surveillance program, such as wiretaps, a federal judge must sign off on the requests.
The mail cover surveillance requests are granted for about 30 days, and can be extended for up to 120 days. There are two kinds of mail covers: those related to criminal activity and those requested to protect national security. The criminal activity requests average 15,000 to 20,000 per year, said law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are prohibited by law from discussing the requests. The number of requests for antiterrorism mail covers has not been made public.
Mr. Pickering said that although he was arrested two dozen times for acts of civil disobedience and convicted of a handful of misdemeanors, he was never involved in the arson attacks the Earth Liberation Front carried out. He said he became tired of focusing only on environmental activism and moved back to Buffalo to finish college, open his bookstore, Burning Books, and start a family.
“I’m no terrorist,” he said. “I’m an activist.”
Mr. Pickering has written books sympathetic to the liberation front, but he said his political views and past association should not make him the target of a federal investigation. “I’m just a guy who runs a bookstore and has a wife and a kid,” he said.