Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Someone is waiting for a letter from you

A friend has forwarded me a little Reuter's news story, here's extracts:

US says it opens some private mail in terrorism fight

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials can open personal mail arriving from abroad as part of the fight against terrorism, and do so when they deem it necessary to protect the country, a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman said on Monday. News of the little-known practice follows revelations that the government approved eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without judicial oversight after the September 11 attacks, which sparked concern from civil liberties advocates and some lawmakers who called for congressional hearings.

Grant Goodman, an 81-year-old retired University of Kansas history professor, drew attention to the policy after a letter he received from a colleague in the Philippines was opened and resealed by Customs and Border Protection, and only then sent on to him.He said he was shocked and amazed that the letter -- which he received last month from another retired history professor with whom he has corresponded for 50 years -- had been screened.

"It was a big surprise," Goodman told Reuters. "The public should know that this is being done. Nobody whom I know had any idea that this was going on. And as far as I know, it's never been announced. It's never been revealed that this is being done."


This story takes me back to a day almost 40 years ago when a young lad -let's call him Bob - walked into the south London premises of the Socialist Labour League (SLL), a Trotskyist organisation, and said "Do you know your mail is being intercepted?"

"Well, we suspect that sort of thing goes on", said an SLL organiser,
cautiously, "but it's difficult to prove it".

"But I know it's going on", insisted Bob "because I've been involved in it!"

Having obtained work as a postman, young Bob had found himself sent to Clapham sorting office, with a special duty. Each day the morning post for the SLL's headquarters was sorted into a separate bag, and put into a sealed packet, which postman Bob had to take up to King Edwards Building, St.Martin-le-Grand. There in the basement the mail was opened, and fed through a special machine which photographed the contents, before being resealed and sent back for delivery.

To make sure Bob did not stray from his path, a person in plain-clothes was assigned to follow him. While he was waiting at St.Martin le Grand he was amazed to see there were six of the mail photographing machines at work, so the SLL must have been only one of several organisations and individuals having their mail monitored in this way.

Satisfied that Bob was of sound mind and not making it up, the Socialist Labour League approached the government for an explanation, and decided to make the mail interception front-page news story for its weekly paper "The Newsletter". Questions were also asked in the House of Commons, interestingly by Eric Lubbock, MP, not a left-winger but Liberal member for Orpington, who went on to become a peer.

The upshot was the Labour government, in the shape of Postmaster General Edward Short, did not deny having the the League's mail opened, but said he did not have to give reasons for it. The SLL's Gerry Healy eventually said that if the authorities must interfere with the mail could they at least speed it up a bit, as he was tired of the post always coming two of three days late.

Bob the postman lost his job of course, and I believe he may even have been prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. What happened to him later I don't know.

One explanation suggested by whoever thinks up explanations for government conduct was that the security services feared the Trotskyites might be plotting some kind of disruption to Kosygin's visit to Britain in February 1967. Yeah right. Did they get that one from the KGB or think it up on their own, I wonder?

And what about those other machines opening other people's mail?

It's reassuring that some people in the United States still raise an eyebrow, if not take umbrage even, at unauthorised government snooping. In Britain we've got too used to shrugging our shoulders and pretending to be cynical while just accepting things.

One point to consider though. Have our rulers and masters really been panicked by terror attacks into taking abnormal measures, or has the "war on terror" just provided an excuse for doing more of what they've always done or wanted to do?


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