Commerce Department unit gathered intel on employees, census critics: report

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A security unit within the Commerce Department routinely overstepped its legal limits by collecting information on hundreds of people both inside and outside the department, investigating their offices at night and searching through their emails, The Washington Post reports.

According to the Post, the Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS) scoured employees’ emails for signs of foreign influence and searched for comments critical of the census on social media.

Citing documents and interviews with five former investigators, the newspaper reports that the ITMS searched Commerce Department servers for certain Chinese words and monitored Asian-American employees’ correspondence.

The ITMS “has been allowed to operate far outside the bounds of federal law enforcement norms and has created an environment of paranoia and retaliation at the Department,” John Costello, former deputy assistant secretary of intelligence and security at Commerce, told the Post.

According to Costello, the office “rests on questionable legal authority and has suffered from poor management and lack of sufficient legal and managerial oversight for much of its existence.”

The ITMS reportedly once looked into a 68-year-old retiree in Florida who tweeted the census, run by the Commerce Department, would be altered “to benefit the Trump Party!” 

Former supervisor Bruce Ridlen told the newspaper that ITMS’s actions looked as though “someone watched too many ‘Mission Impossible’ movies.”

According to former contractors, investigators and supervisors who worked with ITMS, the unit is largely run by career supervisor George D. Lee. Commerce Department spokesperson Brittany Caplin told the Post that Lee, 48, is “not currently supervising the work or the employees of ITMS, and is not performing any investigatory duties.”

Former Commerce Department investigator Christopher Cheung alleged that Lee targeted Chinese guests and employees and other ethnic groups as well. 

“When investigations on these ethnic personnel are inconclusive, Mr. Lee refuses to allow agents to close the cases,” Cheung said in a letter to former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on his last day on the job.

Lee also reportedly required new hires to attend a training program he had devised in the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia in which agents would have to follow him as he drove erratically on mountain roads.

ITMS has a budget of $5.38 million with 17 employees, the Post notes. The entire Commerce Department, with around 54,000 employees, has a budget of $15.2 billion. Investigators told the Post that although more than 1,000 cases had been opened, very few resulted in arrests or criminal charges.

Commerce leaders from the Biden administration ordered the ITMS to halt all criminal investigations on March 10 pending an ongoing review, the Post reports, citing Caplin. This order came two days after the Post presented its finding about ITMS and tried to get interviews.

“The current Commerce Department leadership team takes this issue seriously,” the statement from Caplin said. “The Department expects that at the end of the review it can and will implement a comprehensive solution to the issues raised.”

Tags United States Department of Commerce Wilbur Ross
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