The U.S. Postal Service’s law enforcement arm began monitoring social media posts following the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in Minnesota and across the nation after George Floyd was killed in police custody in May 2020, according to congressional aides and lawmakers who attended a briefing this week on the program.
Last week, Yahoo News revealed that analysts with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service have been trawling Americans’ social media posts to track political protests as part of its Internet Covert Operations Program, known as iCOP. The news prompted more than two dozen Republican lawmakers to demand that the USPS provide information on the program.
During a Wednesday briefing before the House Oversight Committee, Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale told lawmakers that iCOP began in 2017 to investigate potential crimes, such as drug and firearms trafficking transported by the mail system, but then moved into monitoring protests last spring because of the potential threat to Postal Service workers and buildings. An uptick in threats against Postmaster General Louis DeJoy was also a factor in iCOP’s continued focus on monitoring protests, according to a GOP aide who attended the briefing.
A leaked intelligence bulletin from March about iCOP’s work largely focused on social media posts on the right-leaning Parler platform, as well as Facebook and other sites. According to those who attended the hearing, Barksdale would say only that the work was “incident-specific,” but did not provide further details.
“The chief postal inspector was unprepared to the point of incompetence,” Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., told Yahoo News. “He couldn’t tell me when this program started, how much money is spent on it or where the authority to spy on Americans came from.
“The complete inability to give us answers to basic questions was unacceptable,” Mace added.
Still, new details about iCOP’s work did emerge, according to several people who attended the briefing. Barksdale began his testimony with a dramatic video of a mail truck engulfed in flames during the protests that erupted in Minnesota after Floyd's death.
The footage was intended to illustrate why iCOP resources were dedicated to tracking protests on social media, according to a GOP aide.
Concerns about the USPS’s social media surveillance comes amid a series of controversies surrounding the agency. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Democrats accused DeJoy, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, of removing mailboxes and sorting machines to influence the November election, which had a record number of mail-in ballots.
Yet now it’s Republicans leading the charge against the USPS, after it emerged that iCOP was monitoring right-wing social media accounts following the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. It’s unclear if news that the program was also tracking protests related to Black Lives Matter will prompt Democratic lawmakers, who have so far been silent about the program, to join their GOP colleagues in asking for more answers.
Barksdale’s appearance Wednesday did not appease Republican lawmakers. “I was not satisfied with their answers,” Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., told Yahoo News.
“Their theory of the case is, they’ve got to protect their workers and properties,” Biggs said. “I asked, 'If you already have engagement with other agencies like FBI, Homeland Security, NSA, whatever, then why aren’t you asking them for help?'
“Why not just call the agencies whose job it is, who are probably already surveilling American citizens?” he said.
The chief postal inspector told lawmakers those agencies “would not cooperate,” so the USPS “made an executive decision” to have iCOP patrol social media, searching for potential threats from upcoming protests, Biggs told Yahoo News.
Biggs said legislators were also told that iCOP analysts use keyword searches in social media to identify any potential threats, such as rioting or looting.
A GOP aide told Yahoo News that Barksdale noted that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security could not be relied upon to do this work because they don’t have the ability to send text messages alerting mail carriers to nearby danger. It’s unclear, however, if the information gleaned from iCOP has ever been used for that purpose.
The Postal Inspection Service did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.
Barksdale also discussed the iCOP intelligence bulletin obtained by Yahoo News, which said analysts were looking for “inflammatory” posts, pointing out that was not language normally used in the bulletins.
Between December 2020 and March 2021, iCOP produced seven other similar bulletins on its social media investigations of upcoming protests, Barksdale said at the briefing. Those bulletins were shared with other federal agencies, which disseminated them to local and state law enforcement.
Barksdale said iCOP would continue its surveillance work but would no longer produce the bulletins.
“It’s really uncomfortable to think you can look on any event [page] and you’re going to do keyword search on social media that’s related — that seems pretty broad to me,” Biggs told Yahoo News. “If you think your mandate includes this, your mandate is too broad.”
Biggs said he’d back legislation that "would either have to narrow their mandate or you’d have to find some kind of way to prevent them from having this blanket authority.”
In a sign that bipartisan support for such legislation is unlikely, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the ranking member of the Oversight Committee, blamed Democrats for iCOP’s focus on protests, claiming their criticism of DeJoy contributed to violence. “Though questions remain about the expansion of the iCOP program, it’s clear Democrats’ reckless rhetoric has led to increased danger to postal property and individuals forcing the postal inspectors to divert from their main mission as a law enforcement entity,” Comer said in a statement following the briefing.
While Comer offered no evidence to support that claim, it does appear that DeJoy was personally involved in the program’s shift toward social media surveillance. A GOP aide said that after DeJoy was appointed postmaster general in 2020, he reallocated some of the eight-person iCOP team, currently staffed with only five analysts, to focus on protesters.
Biggs said he asked Barksdale during the hearing: “How diverted does this small group get from its mandate to spy on Americans?”
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