How the White House and Other Federal Agencies Use USPS to Send Classified Material

In his ongoing legal and rhetorical campaign against the legitimacy of mail-in voting, President Donald Trump and members of the Republican Party have made the United States Postal Service a primary target, building on service cuts that the American Postal Workers Union have called a "plot to destroy the public postal service" and operational changes that Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren described as "attempts to sabotage the USPS."

But while Trump has described the U.S. Postal Service as a "joke," a "laughing stock" and a "stupidly run organization," incapable of administering vote by mail without significant delays or combatting unevidenced voter fraud, other government agencies and bodies regularly entrust classified material to the USPS.

usps-postal-service
In 1999, a man and his niece wait to pick up mail outside of his brother's house, which was destroyed by a tornado. HECTOR MATA/AFP via Getty Images

An operating manual provided to the Department of Defense outlines policies regarding the U.S. Postal Service typical of many government agencies that deal in classified information.

While materials classified as TOP SECRET—a designation intended for material that a 1982 Executive Order defined as risking "exceptionally grave damage" to national security (though overclassification is rampant)—isn't transmitted via standard postal services, both SECRET and CONFIDENTIAL materials are commonly sent by USPS Registered and Express mail.

For agencies that fall under the purview of the National Industrial Security Program, which manages private industry's access to sensitive materials, all classified documents are packaged in both inner and outer covers prior to mailing, with the inner envelope sealed and "plainly marked" with the assigned classification. There is no indication on the outer envelope that classified information is contained within, and documents are addressed to an organizational title or classified mailing address, rather than any individual's name.

While dropping off Secret material in a street-side mailbox is prohibited, the multiple agencies that follow these guidelines otherwise entrusts sensitive materials to standard USPS facilities and operations. According to the NISP, Secret and Confidential material can also be sent by "a cleared commercial carrier"—likely including FedEx—though numerous agencies either leave private carriers out of their own classification procedures, or reserve their use for exceptional circumstances.

Newsweek has reached out to the NISP for additional details and to confirm the Operating Manual, last updated in 2016, remains in use, but did not hear back by time of publication.

Variants on the same basic classification principles can be found across the government. Similar standards, establishing the U.S. Postal Service as a capable carrier of classified information, are even used within the executive branch. The White House's Office of Management and Budget transmits Secret documents by USPS Express and Registered mail.

Newsweek reached out to the Office of Management and Budget, in addition to several other agencies, for more insight into the transmission of classified material via the USPS. While no comment was received from the OMB in time for publication, an official for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed that their current mail policies aren't exclusive to the U.S. Postal Service.

While material designated Secret and Confidential is regularly transmitted through the U.S. Postal Service throughout the federal government, Top Secret material travels via more stringent guidelines, often involving State Department Diplomatic Pouches and the Defense Courier Service, which handles delivery of classified material worldwide for the White House, State Department and other federal agencies and contractors.

While protocols surrounding Secret and Confidential classified documents are primarily exercised by the sender in the packaging and addressing of mailings, Newsweek reached out to the Postal Service to learn more about how USPS handles known classified material.

"As a matter of safety and privacy, the Postal Service doesn't share information of this nature," a public relations representative for USPS told Newsweek. "We are bound to protect the sanctity of the mail and ensure all mail is delivered intact and unopened without delay, including our secure method of Registered Mail. Until any mailpiece is delivered to the intended recipient and opened, the contents are unknown."

In a statement released at the beginning of August, the USPS further confirmed that they have the capacity and ability to handle "nationwide processing" of Election mail, such as mail-in ballots.