Add another pushpin to the string wall of America’s shadowy force of postal service cops. Yahoo News reports that the USPS’s security arm, the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), monitored social media for potential threats of domestic violence. According to a USPIS memo obtained by Yahoo News, the agency collected “inflammatory” Parler and Telegram posts ahead of planned March 20 protests and shared them with other agencies.
The previously unknown operation is called the Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP). It’s unclear whether this is an ongoing program or was established for the sole purpose of collecting right-wing social media posts. The investigation seems to include posts from Facebook and other social media platforms, but the full breadth of the investigation is not clear from the document. The QAnon-promoted protests, against vaccines and covid-19 safety measures, were set for March 20, a date some believed would mark Donald Trump’s surprise return to the White House.
The two-page document, which is labeled “law enforcement sensitive” and was distributed by a DHS intelligence “fusion center,” reads in part:
Analysts with the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP) monitored significant activity regarding planned protests occurring internationally and domestically on March 20, 2021...Locations and times have been identified for these protests, which are being distributed online across multiple social media platforms, to include right-wing leaning Parler and Telegram accounts.
Neither the USPIS nor the DHS immediately responded to our requests for comment.
You’ll recall that USPIS agents were the armed guys who arrested Steve Bannon on his yacht last year, which piqued our curiosity. (This receded while Postmaster General Louis DeJoy dismantled the rest of the place, cut back hours and proposed reviewing postal workers’ pension payments.) As for what that had to do with the postal service, Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale said at the time: “the U.S. Postal Inspection Service is committed to identifying and investigating anyone who exploits others for their own benefits.”
Mail tie-ins seem to be sort of loose. In a 2019 year-end report, the USPIS said that it employed 1,289 inspectors charged with enforcing “roughly 200 federal laws, covering crimes that include fraudulent use of the U.S. Mail and the postal system.” This surprisingly thrilling tie-in means that they hunt down prolific mail thieves, mail marketers, dark web-sourced mailed drugs, drug delivery bribes, and even on a $7 billion fraud scheme. But it also has a long-running unit for investigating child exploitation material, which, it seems, may or may not be detected through the process of flowing through mail. In its 2019 year-end report, for example, USPIS said that it was handed an investigation into a hard drive (which had at one point been mailed) containing child sexual abuse material, but the investigation was passed along from a Rhode Island internet child abuse task force, not seized en route or at a delivery point.
And, as the Washington Post has noted, the postal service’s investigatory powers granted since 1775 make it the oldest law enforcement agency in the country. The USPIS’s report suggests that it collaborates with virtually every federal investigatory body, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, the FBI, the DEA, and more.
The USPIS told Yahoo News that the iCOP program’s mission represents that of the overall USPIS mission to assess “threats to Postal Service employees and its infrastructure by monitoring publicly available open source information.” But it added that the USPIS “collaborates” with federal, state, and local law enforcement to protect employees and also “customers.”
By the “customers” metric, it seems that, like the mail, USPIS knows no jurisdiction. In its mission statement, the USPIS says that it works to keep up the reputation of the USPS, or “provide the investigative and security resources that ensure America’s confidence in the U.S. Mail.”
UPDATE 4/21/2021 7:20 p.m. ET: The USPIS declined to respond to Gizmodo’s request for information on USPIS’s relationship with DHS and the scope of its operations. It shared a general statement about USPIS operations, cited by Yahoo News: “The U.S. Postal Inspection Service occasionally reviews publicly available information in order to assess potential safety or security threats to Postal Service employees, facilities, operations and infrastructure.”
Correction 4/22/2021 8:30 a.m. ET: An earlier version of this post referred to the document as a “Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo.” The memo was created by the USPIS. Gizmodo regrets the error.