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White House defends signing statement attached to postal reform bill

[JURIST] The White House has defended President Bush's attachment of a signing statement [text] to the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act [PDF text; HR 6407 summary], dismissing arguments that the statement changes administration policy on when mail can be opened without a warrant. Bush signed the law in late December and attached a statement, which said in part:

The executive branch shall construe subsection 404(c) of title 39, as enacted by subsection 1010(e) of the Act, which provides for opening of an item of a class of mail otherwise sealed against inspection, in a manner consistent, to the maximum extent permissible, with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances, such as to protect human life and safety against hazardous materials, and the need for physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection.
Privacy advocates have expressed concern [ACLU press release] that "the Administration's warrantless surveillance of telephone calls and Internet communications extends to the U.S. mail." The ACLU has said that it will file a Freedom of Information Act [text; DOJ materials] request for information on "the number of times this power has been used, whether people who are searched are notified after the fact, and what policies are being put in place to conduct the searches."

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow defended the signing statement in a press briefing [transcript] Wednesday:
...there is nothing new here. What the President is arguing -- what the signing statement indicates is what present law allows, and making it clear what the provisions are within present law in terms of dealing with some of these items....

Q But what's new is the need for physical searches specifically authorized by foreign intelligence collection. And people we've talked to say there is no law that specifically deals with that aspect. So I'm wondering if the President views his executive power as he did in the -- I'll use your words -- terrorist surveillance program is the same here when it comes to mail in the United States?

MR. SNOW: Again, it says "physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection." What the experts seem to have bracketed out is the specifically authorized by law as it applies to that provision. All this is saying is that there are provisions at law for -- in exigent circumstances for such inspections. It has been thus. This is not a change in the law. This is not new. It is not as was described in one paper a "sweeping new power" by the President. It is, in fact, merely a statement of present law and present authorities granted to the President of the United States.
The Postal Service also issued a statement [text] Wednesday noting that "The President is not exerting any new authority," and that nothing in the new law changes the "longstanding practice" of protecting mail from "unreasonable search and seizure when in postal custody." AP has more.

Bush has come under fire for "misusing" bill signing statements [1993 DOJ backgrounder; JURIST news archive] to bypass particular provisions of a bill that the president considers unconstitutional or a risk to national security. The American Bar Association approved a resolution condemning Bush's signing statement practices [JURIST report] last year and Republican Senator Arlen Specter (PA), then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill [JURIST report] last summer that would give Congress the power to challenge presidential signing statements. The Boston Globe and other papers have reported that Bush has added statements to some 750 bills [Boston Globe report] since the outset of his presidency but the US Department of Justice has said that Bush's frequent use of signing statements is not abnormal [JURIST report].

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