Kevin Kosar for the R Street Institute: By law, first-class mail is sealed against inspection, meaning that government officials may not open it without first getting a warrant from a judge. A citizen would be forgiven for imagining that this law ensures his or her mail is private, but that’s not quite true.

For one thing, other classes of mail do not have the same privacy protection as first-class mail. Additionally, thanks to GovernmentAttic.org, we now know the federal government has established three broad exceptions to first-class mail’s “sealed against inspection” protection.

A 2007 U.S. Department of Justice letter lays out the circumstances under which mail may be opened without a warrant. ... "First, it has long been recognized that the Fourth Amendment permits the warrantless opening of mail under 'exigent circumstances.' … The Postal Service informs us that 'exigent circumstance' searches typically are initiated when a postal inspector observes a suspicious package.

"Second, the Fourth Amendment permits the warrantless searching of mail entering or leaving the United States.

"Third ... Section 304(e) [of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978] provides that the Attorney General, under certain circumstances, may approve the execution of an emergency physical search of property, including property that 'is in transit to or from an agent of a foreign power or a foreign power' … so long as the Attorney General subsequently obtains an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizing the search."

The expectation that personal correspondence should remain private is centuries old. In the 1750s, for example, Postmaster Benjamin Franklin instituted a policy forbidding postmasters from reading individuals’ letters.

So it is dismaying that the Postal Service, the Inspection Service and the Department of Justice are not upfront with the public as to when they feel fit to open private mail. Indeed, the above DOJ letter came to light because GovernmentAttic.org used the Freedom of Information Act to shake it loose from DOJ. And this policy letter was written only because a pesky congressman demanded an answer from DOJ.

President Obama promised his administration would establish “an unprecedented level of openness” and transparency in government. In this instance, that standard was not met.

 

LEFT OUT IN THE COLD

Scott Keyes for ThinkProgress: Levi Cummings didn’t die of old age. He didn’t die in an accident, and he wasn’t murdered. Cummings died because he was homeless.

He likely froze to death — the state medical examiner must still officially release the cause of death — last Thursday, a victim of the polar vortex and of his inability to afford a place to stay.

Cummings left behind his main companion, a dog named Baby Girl, and a bevy of goodwill in the community. “He was the kindest, sweetest man you ever met,” Glenn Blankenship, director of the Shawnee Rescue Mission, told the Shawnee News-Star.

Cummings’ death, like those of all homeless people who die from the cold, was preventable. However, he had the unfortunate luck of living in Shawnee, Okla., a city ThinkProgress previously profiled as the worst city in America to be homeless. There should have been another shelter in Shawnee for people like Cummings, but the privately funded project was scrapped by the City Commission, whose chief owned numerous houses nearby and worried what would happen to his property values.

There are currently 578,424 homeless people living in the United States, a third of whom have no shelter at all. As temperatures start to fall across the country, they are an extremely vulnerable population, even in areas of the country that don’t regularly see freezing temperatures like Oklahoma and California. More could soon suffer Cummings’ fate.

 

KIDS, NOT EXPERIMENTS

Charles Murray for the American Enterprise Institute: It turns out that children are not plastic. They are pretty much who they are from the get-go, for reasons that neither programs nor parents can do much to change. For those of you who bridle at that statement but have more than one child, I have a question: Were you ever under the impression that you could make one of your children more like the other in any significant way? I have yet to meet the parent who answers “yes, and I did it.”

But children aren’t science projects. Parents may hope to produce good results 20 years down the road, but that’s not why we love and nurture our children. Parents who have the terrible experience of learning that their children won’t be alive even a few years later don’t love and nurture them less, but more.

The same response should apply to all of our efforts to help children. A Head Start center that provides a child from a terrible home environment with a few hours a day of affection, warmth, and security has done a good thing. The fact that Head Start has been proved to have no long-term effects is irrelevant to that good thing.

I don’t know how many Head Start centers accomplish even that much, but that too is irrelevant to my broader point. All children need love and nurturing. Children who are not getting those things should be subjects of our concern. It is my belief that government is the worst of ways to respond to their needs, but we can argue about that. Let’s simply agree to dispense with long-term outcomes as the measure of success, and focus on how best to get love and nurturing to children in need of it.