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Last Time Gov’t Opened First Class Mail

Thanks to vigorous Congressional oversight in the 1970s and the distribution of reports to many outlets, including Federal Depository Libraries, we know what happened the last time the Intelligence Community opened mail without warrants (emphasis mine):



Between 1940 and 1973, two agencies of the federal government — the CIA and the FBI — covertly and illegally opened and photographed first class letter mail within the United States. These agencies conducted a total of twelve mail opening programs for lengths of time varying from three weeks to twenty-six years. In a single program alone, more than 215,000 communications were intercepted, opened, and photographed; the photographic copies of these letters, some dated as early as 1955, were indexed, filed, and are retained even today. Information from this and other mail opening programs — “sanitized” to disguise its true source — was disseminated within the federal establishment to other members of the intelligence community, the Attorney General, and to the President of the United States.

The stated objective of the CIA programs was the collection of foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information; that of the FBI programs was the collection of counterespionage information. In terms of their respective purposes, seven of the twelve mail opening programs were considered to have been successful by Agency and Bureau officials. One CIA project and three of the FBI programs concededly failed to obtain any significant relevant information. Another CIA operation — clearly the most massive of all the programs in terms of numbers of letters opened — was believed to have been of value to the Agency by some officials, but was criticized by many others as having produced only minimally useful foreign intelligence. Despite two unfavorable internal reviews, this program nonetheless continued unabated for twenty years.

While all of these programs responded to the felt intelligence needs of the CIA and the FBI during the “cold war” of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, once in place they could be — and sometimes were — directed against the citizens of this country for the collection of essentially domestic intelligence. In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, large numbers of American dissidents, including those who challenged the condition of racial minorities and those who opposed the war in Vietnam, were specifically targeted for mail opening by both agencies. In one program, selection of mail on the basis of “personal taste” by agents untrained in foreign intelligence objectives resulted in the interception and opening of the mail of Senators, Congressmen, journalists, businessmen, and even a Presidential candidate.

For an official printed version of the report, see:

Final report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate : together with additional, supplemental, and separate views.

by United States. Congress. Senate. Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities.; Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service. (1976)

We don’t need to see this movie again. Tell your Congressperson and the White House.

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