Little-known Commerce security unit abused its power and investigated workers of Chinese or South Asian descent for years, report reveals


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the report, implicating more than two dozen whistleblowers whose allegations date back to the mid-2000s, revealed that the Commerce Department’s Threat Investigation and Management Service (ITMS) had launched unauthorized investigations into departmental employees, affecting “disproportionately” people of Chinese or Southeast Asian descent. ancestry. The report was released this week by Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the Republican ranked on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

ITMS abused its power and opened “frivolous investigations” of employees “without evidence suggesting wrongdoing in an attempt to exaggerate the unit’s ability to uncover security threats within the public service “, according to the report released Tuesday.

The unit was created under the administration of George W. Bush to provide security services to the Secretary of Commerce, according to the report. He began to conduct regular criminal investigations related to threats against the secretary and the assets of the department. Eventually, the unit began to use “counterintelligence tools to gather information on foreign visitors and US citizens,” the report said, and did so until the start of the Biden administration. ” although she is not authorized to engage in law enforcement activities “.

The unit had “mismanagement and weak oversight” and “weak policies and procedures outlining the unit’s investigative capabilities” which led to some instances of misconduct and abuse of power, according to the report .

In an example cited in the report, the ITMS investigated an award-winning Chinese-born scientist employed at the department on charges of espionage and misrepresentation. According to the report, the unit interrogated her for hours and referred the case to the FBI, who then drew up a criminal referral to federal prosecutors. After his arrest, the authorities dropped all charges.

The report also states that in some cases, investigations have resulted in warrantless “secret” searches involving “identity concealment tactics”, such as the use of face masks, latex gloves and shoe covers. . The report found that the unit also confiscated business phones and computers and picked locks on offices and personal storage containers. According to the report, “federal prosecutors have routinely rejected criminal referrals from ITMS on the basis of identifiable flaws in the methods the unit relied on to obtain evidence.”

An anonymous former Commerce Department official cited in the report said he believed the abuse of power by this unit was the result of strained relations between the governments of the United States and China. The official said they believe the ITMS did this to counter any espionage attempts within the Commerce Department.

The official said the unit’s targeting against Chinese Americans was “a fine line between further scrutiny and xenophobia, and that the ITMS steadily crossed,” according to the report.

George Lee, longtime director of the unit, is cited throughout the report. CNN has reached out to Lee for comment. The New York Times reported that he had been put on leave.

The Commerce Department did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment on the report and Lee’s employment status.

“It is my duty to ensure that agencies are held accountable, particularly when whistleblowers present information suggesting chronic abuse of power,” Wicker said in a statement accompanying the report. “Congress has a defined role in exercising oversight, and I intend to ensure that federal agencies are operating within appropriate limits.”

Wicker launched the investigation in February after whistleblowers reported abnormal activity involving “abuse of power, mismanagement and retaliation against” department employees, according to the Senate committee.

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