It was a routine weekend ceremony. President Bush was signing a postal reform bill into law on December 20th; a bill which, among other things, reinforced protections of first-class mail from searches without a court's approval. However he added an addendum (technically a "signing statement"), one that was not discussed by the legislature or anyone else. The addendum said that it was ok to open and read the mail in "exigent circumstances".
Barron's law dictionary defines "exigent circumstances" as:
Emergency situations or conditions which the law recognizes as excusing compliance with some procedural requirement or recognition of another's property or other interests. If the police action must be taken on a "now or never" basis to preserve evidence, it may be reasonable to permit a seizure without obtaining prior judicial approval. 413 U.S. 496, 505. Exigent circumstances may be found when substantial risk of harm to others or the police would exist if police were to delay a search until a warrant could be obtained.
In this case the administration has defined the circumstances as the "war on terror". Like the war on poverty and the war on drugs, a war on terror could continue indefinitely, giving the state a convenient open-ended excuse to subvert civil liberties should it choose to do so.
A valid question we should ask ourselves is this: Is privacy important? Or is it a quaint idea that is no longer meaningful?
When George Orwell wrote "1984", some of the scenarios he discussed seemed quite far-fetched. One that comes to mind is ubiquitous monitoring, through TV cameras or other technological means. Since then, CCTV devices have become so common that their absence can be disturbing. Cameras monitor public roads, grocery stores, banks, traffic lights, elevators, private hallways, parking garages - just about everywhere you could stick a camera one is there. The first thing investigators do on popular crime shows is "pull the tapes" of all the surveillance cameras. Thus we're taught that cameras bring us security, and security trumps privacy. Or does it?
Computer users long ago gave up the notion of having any privacy in email. Anything entered onto a computer is more or less considered fair game, especially to your employer. We assume that police with a warrant can access any kind of computer logs and your ISP may care to keep. The warrant, though, is a citizen's protection against a police state.
In the same way that we might share our deepest secrets with our doctor or lawyer, and trust them to keep it to themselves, we have imbued our trust in the judicial system to be a fair and wise check and balance to the other branches of our government. But when one branch can find a loophole to get around that check, this is where we should draw the line. "Exigent circumstances" is one of those fancy turns of phrases like "enemy combatants" that could mean just about anything. If we want to give up our privacy in the name of security, then let's be open and up front about it, debate it, and make a conscious decision to do it. These legal slights of hand are unbecoming to the home of the brave and the land of free.