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Pushing the Envelope...Literally

Over a year ago, when it was first revealed that the Bush administration was conducting wiretaps on phone calls made inside the US to overseas without getting the proper court ordered warrant, one excuse for why it wasn't so bad was because there were no physical searches involved. They are just listening in on phone calls, defenders would say. It's not like they are opening our mail!

Well, we can scratch that one off the list of abuses this administration has compiled. In yet another instant of President Bush using his famous "signing statements" to usurp authority, he has now reserved the right to open our snail mail as well.
President Bush has quietly claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans' mail without a judge's warrant, the Daily News has learned.

The President asserted his new authority when he signed a postal reform bill into law on Dec. 20. Bush then issued a "signing statement" that declared his right to open people's mail under emergency conditions.

That claim is contrary to existing law and contradicted the bill he had just signed, say experts who have reviewed it.

Bush's move came during the winter congressional recess and a year after his secret domestic electronic eavesdropping program was first revealed. It caught Capitol Hill by surprise.

"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," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the incoming House Government Reform Committee chairman, who co-sponsored the bill.

Experts said the new powers could be easily abused and used to vacuum up large amounts of mail.

"The [Bush] signing statement claims authority to open domestic mail without a warrant, and that would be new and quite alarming," said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington.

"The danger is they're reading Americans' mail," she said.

"You have to be concerned," agreed a career senior U.S. official who reviewed the legal underpinnings of Bush's claim. "It takes Executive Branch authority beyond anything we've ever known."

Just another day for this administration.

More Meme.

Update: Dan Froomkin on questions still unanswered.
And sadly, most of the questions about signing statements that I raised in a Nieman Watchdog essay last June still remain unaddressed. Foremost among them: Are these signing statements just a bunch of ideological bluster from overenthusiastic White House lawyers -- or are they actually emboldening administration officials to flout the laws passed by Congress? If the latter, Bush's unprecedented use of these statements constitutes a genuine Constitutional crisis.

Are you listening Democrats? Because now is the time to demand answers.

(Filed at State of the Day)