A mail cover is an investigative tool used to track criminal activity. During fiscal years (FY) 2010 through 2014, the U. S. Postal Inspection Service approved 118,577 mail covers requested by postal inspectors and 39,966 requested by external law enforcement authorities.
Authorized by the chief postal inspector or a designee, a mail cover involves U.S. Postal Service or Postal Inspection Service personnel recording information from the outside of a mailpiece, such as the sender’s address. Personnel are not permitted to open mailpieces without a search warrant.
The Postal Inspection Service’s Criminal Investigations Service Center (CISC), the primary administrator of the mail covers program, is responsible for maintaining accountable mail cover documents and Postal Service (PS) Forms 2008 and 2009. PS Form 2008, Letter of Instruction, provides guidance for completing, returning, and safeguarding mail covers. PS Form 2009, Information Regarding Mail Matter, is used to record information from the outside of the mailpiece, such as the sender’s name and address. These forms contain information such as names, addresses, and financial institutions that, if used in the aggregate, could reveal personally identifiable information.
When an external mail cover request is approved, CISC sends PS Forms 2008 and 2009 to the Postal Service, which records mailpiece information. Both documents are returned to CISC, which forwards PS Forms 2009 to the requesting external law enforcement agency. The external law enforcement agency must return PS Forms 2009 to CISC within 60 days after the end of the mail cover.
For approved internal mail cover requests, CISC sends PS Forms 2008 and 2009 to the Postal Service, which records the information (or the postal inspector will record the information). Once the information is recorded, the Postal Service must send accountable documents to the requesting postal inspector. Depending on the case, the documents must be returned to CISC within 60 days or before the case is closed. Postal inspectors also conduct interdiction mail covers, which focus on large volumes of mail at specific postal facilities and may last up to 120 days.
This is a follow-up to a previous report that reviewed handling of mail covers requested by external law enforcement agencies. The objectives of the current audit were to follow up on recommendations from the previous audit and assess how the Postal Inspection Service handled internal mail cover requests from postal inspectors and the impact of publicly reporting mail cover statistics.
What The OIG Found
The Postal Inspection Service and Postal Service management addressed three of the four recommendations from our prior audit involving external and national security mail covers.
Specifically, management completed actions to ensure national security mail covers were handled appropriately, mail cover requests were properly approved and justified, periodic reviews were conducted, and controls were improved to ensure facility personnel process mail covers timely. Postal Service management is currently completing actions to ensure data integrity in the Postal Inspection Service mail cover application.
However, the CISC was still not ensuring accountable documents were returned timely. For external requests, 49 of 75 files we sampled (65 percent) from prior audit work had accountable information that still had not been returned. Also, accountable documents for 16 mail cover files judgmentally selected from FY 2015 were not returned timely, not returned at all, or not retained in the mail cover file.
To address this issue, Postal Inspection Service management implemented the use of a Postal Service tracking system to monitor mail covers at postal facilities and began developing a debarment process to hold external law enforcement agencies accountable for not returning accountable documents.
Internal mail cover requests from postal inspectors had similar issues. Specifically, Postal Inspection Service personnel closed 79 of 120 mail cover files (66 percent) during FYs 2012 through 2014 without PS Forms 2009 being returned. In addition, we found accountable documents for 10 of the 16 mail cover files judgmentally selected from FY 2015 (63 percent) were closed without PS Forms 2009 being returned.
Also, Postal Service employees responsible for documenting mailpiece information at nine judgmentally selected facilities did not always safeguard mail cover information, follow mail cover procedures for recording information, or complete the mail cover.
In addition, Postal Inspection Service personnel did not notify the requesting law enforcement agency in one of the 11 incidents where the mail cover was compromised when the investigated subject was informed about the mail cover. During the audit, CISC officials updated standard operating procedures and reiterated to staff the requirement to notify the requesting agency when a compromise occurs and to document the notification.
Further, personnel at three facilities did not complete separate PS Forms 2009 for each mailpiece recorded for interdiction mail covers, as required. Instead, they recorded the information on a spreadsheet or in the Postal Inspection Service database. Although it may be more efficient to complete a single document attached to a spreadsheet listing all of the mailpieces, consideration should be given to the impact on the confidentiality and security of mail cover information.
Finally, management could improve transparency in the mail covers program by publicly reporting annual mail cover statistics.
These issues occurred because management did not have a process in place to hold external law enforcement agencies accountable for not returning mail cover documents and did not always monitor and track accountable mail cover documents, sufficiently oversee compliance, or clarify requirements and train personnel for internal mail cover requests. In addition, officials did not have guidelines for reporting mail cover statistics. Insufficient controls over the mail covers program could hinder the Postal Inspection Service’s ability to conduct effective investigations, lead to public concerns over privacy of mail, and harm the Postal Service’s brand.
What The OIG Recommended
We recommended management complete the debarment process to hold external law enforcement agencies accountable for returning accountable documents, establish formal procedures to monitor and track accountable mail cover documents, establish mandatory training requirements for Postal Service personnel responsible for handling and safeguarding mail covers, conduct a study to determine the use of electronic media, including spreadsheets, and its impact on the confidentiality and security of mail cover information and establish guidelines to report mail cover statistics.