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Report finds little-known security unit in Commerce abused power and investigated employees of Chinese or Southeast Asian ancestry for years

By Daniella Diaz, CNN

A report by a Senate committee found that a little-known security unit within the Department of Commerce abused its power and oftentimes monitored employees of color without any evidence of wrongdoing.

The report, involving more than two dozen whistleblowers with allegations dating to the mid-2000s, found that the Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS) at the Department of Commerce launched unauthorized investigations into the department’s employees, “disproportionally” impacting people of Chinese or Southeast Asian ancestry. The report was released this week by Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

The ITMS abused its power and opened “frivolous investigations” on employees “without evidence suggesting wrongdoing for the purpose of exaggerating the unit’s ability to uncover security threats within the civil service,” according to the report published Tuesday.

The unit was created during the George W. Bush administration to provide security services to the secretary of Commerce, according to the report. It began regularly conducting criminal investigations related to threats against the secretary and departmental assets. Eventually the unit started using “counterintelligence tools to gather information about both foreign visitors and U.S. citizens,” according to the report, and it did this until early in the Biden administration “despite not having authorization to perform law enforcement activities.”

The unit had “poor management and weak oversight” and “deficient policies and procedures outlining the unit’s investigative capabilities” that led to some of the instances of misconduct and abuses of power, according to the report.

In one example cited in the report, the ITMS investigated an award-winning Chinese-born scientist employed at the department on accusations of espionage and providing false statements. According to the report, the unit interrogated her for hours and referred the matter to the FBI, which then drafted a criminal referral to federal prosecutors. After she was arrested, officials dropped all of the charges.

The report also said in some cases, the investigations resulted in “covert” warrantless searches involving “identity-concealing tactics,” such as the use of facemasks, latex gloves and shoe coverings. The report found the unit also confiscated work phones and computers and picked the locks of offices and personal storage containers. According to the report, “federal prosecutors regularly dismissed criminal referrals from the ITMS based on identifiable flaws in methods the unit relied upon to obtain evidence.”

One unnamed former senior Commerce Department official cited in the report said they believed this unit’s abuse of power was a result of tense relations between the United States and Chinese governments. The official said they believed that the ITMS did this to counter any attempt at espionage from within the Commerce Department.

The official said the unit’s targeting of Chinese-Americans was a “fine line between extra scrutiny and xenophobia, and one that ITMS regularly crossed,” according to the report.

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

The Department of Commerce 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 we hold agencies accountable, especially when whistleblowers come forward with information suggesting chronic abuses of power,” Wicker said in a statement with the report. “Congress has a defined role in performing oversight, and I intend to make sure that the federal agencies operate within the proper bounds.”

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

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