Jan. 4, 2007 — -- President Bush says he and other government officials have the power to snoop through your mail without a judge's warrant.
Bush made the claim last month in a signing statement attached to a postal reform bill. Bush wrote that the bill "provides for opening of an item of a class of mail otherwise sealed against inspection."
After last year's revelation of Bush's secret domestic eavesdropping program, the move caused waves on Capitol Hill among some legislators who said that it contradicted the postal reform bill, as well as existing law.
"Despite the president's statement that he may be able to circumvent a basic privacy protection, the new postal law continues to prohibit the government from snooping into people's mail without a warrant," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said to the New York Daily News.
Waxman, the incoming House Government Reform Committee chairman, co-sponsored the bill.
But White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said today that the signing statement was meant merely "to clarify that he already has the authority" to open mail in certain emergencies.
"The president is not claiming any 'new authority,'" the White House said in a new statement. "The signing statement merely recognizes a legal proposition that is totally uncontroversial: that in certain circumstances -- such as with the proverbial 'ticking bomb' -- the Constitution does not require warrants for reasonable searches."
Lawrimore said such presidential power would not infringe upon Americans' privacy, because it "would only be used in extraordinary circumstances."
The Dec. 20 signing statement said the president had the power to check mail "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 experts were divided on whether the president was simply asserting his established authority, particularly because the bill authorized a new class of express mail that could not be inspected without a warrant.
"This is like a courier service for drug dealers or terrorists," said Brian Walsh, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation. "I don't know what Congress was thinking. We have a long history of inspecting mail during wartime, including mail that came from GIs during World War II."
Walsh adds that this authority has rarely been invoked. "I don't think we have any reason to belive that there has been a widespread inspection of Americans' mail or that there will be."
But Jonathan Hafetz, litigation director at the Brennan Center for Justice, sees the president's move as another attempt to bypass Congress and lawful mechanisms for protecting security.
"It's in keeping with the administration's unlawful policies on detention, torture and electronic eavesdropping," Hafetz said. "This is another example of runaway executive power stomping on Americans' privacy and speech rights."
There is a lower legal standard for the government to search media mail, which includes packages containing books, manuscripts, sound recordings, recorded videotapes and computer-readable media, and for "mail covers," which is the address information on the outside of the envelope.
As for international mail coming into the United States, the government already has the right to open those letters without a warrant. Under a trade act passed in 2002, 107 H.R. 3009, Congress expanded the Custom Service's ability to open international mail without a warrant.
When it comes to electronic mail, the government may not need a warrant to search your messages. By claiming that your e-mail is stored on third-party servers held by Yahoo and such companies and citing the Stored Communications Act, the government doesn't need to get access to your personal computer at home in order to read your e-mail.
In a recent mail-fraud case, the Federal Trade Commission and FBI simply obtained a court order -- not a warrant -- to access the e-mail accounts of Steven Warshak, a businessman who sells male enhancement products online.
ABC News' Marcus Baram, Michael S. James, David Kerley and Ann Compton contributed to this report.