A Senate report on a security unit within the Commerce Department alleged that poor management and weak oversight drove the unit to morph into a “rogue, unaccountable police force” and what whistleblowers described as a “gestapo.”
The report (pdf), released by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, accused the Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS) of launching “frivolous investigations” against employees and of “improper exercises of law enforcement powers,” likely resulting in violations of civil liberties and other constitutional rights.
The ITMS, which was established under the George W. Bush administration to investigate threats against the Secretary of Commerce and the Department’s “critical assets,” operated “without a clearly defined mission,” the report alleged, which “ultimately led to the mutation of the ITMS into a rogue, unaccountable police force across multiple presidential administrations.”
The report further alleged that ITMS agents engaged in law enforcement activities that were outside the scope of the delegated authority from the U.S. Marshals Service, also collaborating with intelligence community agencies to conduct counterintelligence operations without proper legal authorization.
“Deficient policies and procedures outlining the unit’s investigative capabilities led to repeated instances of malfeasance, including the purposeful prolonging of investigations, unauthorized use of secured messaging systems, and overclassification of documents to protect the unit from outside scrutiny,” the report alleged.
The Commerce Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A former Commerce Department official cited in the report said tense relations between the United States and China drove the unit to crack down on potential espionage from within the department, with the report noting that the ITMS targeted department divisions “with comparably high proportions of Asian-American employees, ostensibly to counter attempts of espionage by individuals with Chinese ancestry.”
The report alleged that, in seeking to identify potential foreign spies, ITMS agents resorted to tactics like snooping on employee’s emails and text messages, and picking the locks of offices and personal storage containers.
Wicker and the minority-party staff of the Senate Commerce Committee launched a probe into the operations of the ITMS in February following complaints from more than two dozen whistleblowers, with the alleged misconduct dating back to 2005, according to the report.
“Combating national security threats posed by China should be a priority for any agency, but that does not give the federal government a license to disregard the law,” Wicker said in a statement to The New York Times. “Abuse of authority and race-based targeting is unacceptable, especially in law enforcement.”
The report also alleged that the Commerce Department’s inspector general, Peggy Gustafson, reviewed multiple whistleblower complaints against the security unit starting in 2017 but “failed to identify and address the unit’s deficiency.”
In its conclusion, the report said that the ITMS “regularly disregarded the rule of law, committing gross abuses of power and misusing taxpayer funds to perform missions the unit lacked authorization to undertake.”
The Biden administration in March ordered the ITMS to pause criminal probes and in May ordered the suspension of all of the unit’s activities pending the conclusion of the review.
“The Department expects that at the end of the review it can and will implement a comprehensive solution to the issues raised,” Commerce Department spokeswoman Brittany Caplin told The Washington Post in a statement in May.