A new Senate report into a security office within the Department of Commerce found that officials used racial profiling and for more than a decade operated as “a rogue, unaccountable police force,” in its unauthorized surveillance of agency employees.
The report from the Senate Commerce, Science, & Transportation Committee resulted from a months-long investigation, involving more than two dozen whistleblowers, into alleged misconduct at Commerce’s Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS). The office was initially established under former President George W. Bush’s administration to provide security services to the commerce secretary.
However, the report, released by Republican ranking committee member Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerTop Republican: General told senators he opposed Afghanistan withdrawal NY Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 in latest House breakthrough case Florida Democrat becomes latest breakthrough COVID-19 case in House MORE (Miss.), said that the ITMS across several presidential administrations developed into a law enforcement agency “without a clearly defined mission” that lacked sufficient oversight.
While Wicker previously released in May a fact sheet detailing some of the initial findings of the Senate investigation, and The Washington Post detailed accounts of racial bias in unauthorized searches by the office, Friday’s report reveals the full scope of the little-known security office’s alleged intelligence-gathering practices.
Among the report’s main findings was that the office, largely under the leadership of career supervisor George Lee, “broadly targeted departmental divisions with comparably high proportions of Asian-American employees, ostensibly to counter attempts of espionage by individuals with Chinese ancestry.”
According to the report, sources from within the department said some of the audits carried out by the office labeled several dismissed cases into Asian Americans, including people of Chinese and Middle Eastern descent, as “terrorism-related.”
Further, the Senate committee found that the ITMS “opened frivolous investigations on a variety of employees without evidence suggesting wrongdoing for the purpose of exaggerating the unit’s ability to uncover security threats within the civil service.”
“The unit targeted visible employees across the Department, including award-winning professionals whose background investigations had been successfully adjudicated by other agencies,” the committee found. “These probes often resulted in suspended or revoked security clearances, although subsequent reviews largely determined that the unit’s allegations lacked merit.”
The report also noted, as the Post previously reported, that ITMS looked through employees’ emails for signs of potential foreign influence and social media comments to see if workers had said anything critical of the U.S. census.
Some of the ITMS probes led to “covert searches involving identity-concealing tactics, including the use of facemasks, latex gloves, and shoe coverings,” according to the report.
The Senate committee in the report went on to argue for several “corrective actions” for Commerce to take in response to the findings, including “possible structural reforms to ensure better oversight and potential legislation to authorize legitimate aspects of the unit’s investigative mission.”
The Senate committee added that Commerce should carry out a review of ITMS politics and practices to “ensure compliance with statutes, regulations, and professional standards,” as well as a review of “all adverse employment actions directed or informed by the work of ITMS and former iterations of the office.”
The Hill has reached out to the Commerce Department for comment on the report.
A spokeswoman told The New York Times the department takes the report's allegations "very seriously."
The department is conducting an internal review and "will share its plans for addressing the issues that have been raised" after its conclusion, the spokesperson told the Times.