Security officers at the Department of Commerce searched staff offices at night and ran keyword searches of their emails as they looked for signs of foreign influence, according to a report that revealed how its investigations unit behaved more like a counterintelligence operation.
The Investigations and Threat Management Service also trawled social media accounts looking for criticism of the census as it collected intelligence on hundreds of people, according to five investigators.
The office had ‘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, a former deputy assistant secretary of intelligence and security at Commerce under President Trump, told the Washington Post.
Former investigators, supervisors and contractors said operations were often carried out on the whim of career supervisor George D. Lee, who led the unit for a decade.
Officers from the Investigations and Threat Management Services launched a probe into a 68-year-old retiree, one of a number of social media accounts flagged after posting negative comments about the Census, which is run by the Department of Commerce. ‘I’m not part of any disinformation campaign,’ said the retiree after learning about the investigation later
John Costello, a former deputy assistant secretary of intelligence and security at Commerce under President Trump, said the Investigations and Threat Management Service had been allowed to create an ‘environment of paranoia and retaliation’
The newspaper reported that the unit monitored a string of Asian-American employees after the unit searched for Chinese words on department servers
And it investigated a 68-year-old retiree in Florida who used Twitter to claim that the census, which is run by Commerce, would be used ‘to benefit the Trump Party!’
‘I’m not part of any disinformation campaign. I’m just an American,’ the retiree, who has about 140 followers, told the Washington Post, on condition of anonymity.
‘I just expressed my opinion online.’
Bruce Ridlen, a former supervisor, said the unit’s tactics suggested ‘someone had watched too many Mission Impossible movies.
The result was a number of complaints that led to investigations by its internal watchdog about its practises.
In March, new officials with the Biden administration ordered ITMS halt all of its criminal investigations. And in May, following early results from a review, it was ordered to suspend all activities, said Department of Commerce spokeswoman Brittany Caplin.
Security officers at the Department of Commerce wore masks and blocked cameras to conduct covert searches and ran keyword searches of staff emails as they looked for signs of foreign influence, according to whistleblowers
‘The current Commerce Department leadership team takes this issue seriously,’ she said.
‘The department expects that at the end of the review it can and will implement a comprehensive solution to the issues raised.’
She said Lee was no longer supervising the work of ITMS and he did not return requests for comment.
Minority-party staff of the Senate Committee on Commerce also launched an investigation into the unit in February, according to Sen. Roger Wicker, its most senior Republican.
On Monday he released a factsheet summarizing findings from whistleblowers, which concluded, ‘ITMS has mutated into a rogue, unaccountable police force without a clear mission.’
It described how a Chinese-born member of staff was arrested on espionage charges and interrogated for hours before officials decided there was insufficient evidence to proceed.
‘In multiple cases, whistleblowers claim that racial profiling served as pre-text for initiating investigations purportedly about threats to national security, disproportionately targeting Department employees with Chinese ancestry,’ said the document.
Sen. Roger Wicker, ranking member on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, has been investigating the unit since February and said the evidence from whistleblowers so far suggested ‘chronic abuses of power’
And it said staff abused their position to conduct thousands of unauthorized investigations, often for purposes of retribution or retaliation.
‘It is my duty to ensure that we hold agencies accountable, especially when whistleblowers come forward with information suggesting chronic abuses of power,’ said Wicker.
ITMS reportedly launched investigations last year into the authors of social media posts questioning the fairness of the census count.
It was apparently aimed at finding any organized disinformation campaign details were passed to the FBI, which declined to take it up what it saw as protected free speech.
Lee also ordered agents to scan emails for key Chinese phrases, according to former investigator Christopher Cheung.
He emailed Wilbur Ross, the then Secretary of Commerce, to outline his concerns in an email he sent on his last day of two and half years working with Lee.
‘Mr. Lee has discriminately targeted ethnic Chinese foreign guests/visitors and employees as well as other ethnic personnel,’ he wrote on June 21, 2019, according to the Washington Post. ‘When investigations on these ethnic personnel are inconclusive, Mr. Lee refuses to allow agents to close the cases.’
He also said a lock was picked on a staff locker in 2018.
Former investigators said that they wore face masks or blocked the view of security cameras during some searches.
‘It was so we didn’t leave a trace,’ said one.