In the 50 years that Grant Goodman has known and corresponded with a colleague in the Philippines he never had any reason to suspect that their friendship was anything but spectacularly ordinary.
But now he believes that the relationship has somehow sparked the interest of the Department of Homeland Security and led the agency to place him under surveillance.
Last month Goodman, an 81-year-old retired University of Kansas history professor, received a letter from his friend in the Philippines that had been opened and resealed with a strip of dark green tape bearing the words “by Border Protection” and carrying the official Homeland Security seal.
“I had no idea (Homeland Security) would open personal letters,” Goodman told MSNBC.com in a phone interview. “That’s why I alerted the media. I thought it should be known publicly that this is going on,” he said. Goodman originally showed the letter to his own local newspaper, the Kansas-based Lawrence Journal-World.
“I was shocked and there was a certain degree of disbelief in the beginning,” Goodman said when he noticed the letter had been tampered with, adding that he felt his privacy had been invaded. “I think I must be under some kind of surveillance.”
Goodman is no stranger to mail snooping; as an officer during World War II he was responsible for reading all outgoing mail of the men in his command and censoring any passages that might provide clues as to his unit’s position. “But we didn’t do it as clumsily as they’ve done it, I can tell you that,” Goodman noted, with no small amount of irony in his voice. “Isn’t it funny that this doesn’t appear to be any kind of surreptitious effort here,” he said.
The letter comes from a retired Filipino history professor; Goodman declined to identify her. And although the Philippines is on the U.S. government’s radar screen as a potential spawning ground for Muslim-related terrorism, Goodman said his friend is a devout Catholic and not given to supporting such causes.
A spokesman for the Customs and Border Protection division said he couldn’t speak directly to Goodman’s case but acknowledged that the agency can, will and does open mail coming to U.S. citizens that originates from a foreign country whenever it’s deemed necessary.
“All mail originating outside the United States Customs territory that is to be delivered inside the U.S. Customs territory is subject to Customs examination,” says the CBP Web site. That includes personal correspondence. “All mail means ‘all mail,’” said John Mohan, a CBP spokesman, emphasizing the point.
“This process isn’t something we’re trying to hide,” Mohan said, noting the wording on the agency’s Web site. “We’ve had this authority since before the Department of Homeland Security was created,” Mohan said.
However, Mohan declined to outline what criteria are used to determine when a piece of personal correspondence should be opened, but said, “obviously it’s a security-related criteria.”
Mohan also declined to say how often or in what volume CBP might be opening mail. “All I can really say is that Customs and Border Protection does undertake [opening mail] when it is determined to be necessary,” he said.