A security unit tasked with assessing threats against the U.S. Department of Commerce used counterintelligence tools to gather information about U.S. citizens and foreign visitors to the United States, unauthorised surveillance that included the monitoring of Americans’ Twitter accounts for comments critical of the government, according to a senior Republican in the U.S. Senate.
Ahead of a forthcoming report said to detail allegations of “improper activities dating back to the mid-2000s” by the Commerce Department’s Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS), Sen. Roger Wicker said Monday that government whistleblowers had reported a variety of abuses, including reprisals against Department employees.
Wicker, the ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, released a “fact sheet” concerning his investigation of ITMS hours after the Washington Post first reported on its existence.
“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. “Congress has a defined role in performing oversight, and I intend to make sure that the federal agencies operate within the proper bounds.”
ITMS’s operations were suspended as of May 14, Wicker said. A Commerce Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Wicker’s “fact sheet” states that whistleblowers reported, among other abuses, that racial profiling “served as a pretext” for so-called national security investigations, with Asian American employees of the department being prominently targeted.
Likewise, the Post reported Monday that ITMS officials had searched Commerce servers for particular Chinese words, resulting in Asian American staff being targeted over what the paper’s sources described as “benign correspondence.”
The Post identified the unit’s leader as George D. Lee, 48, a former federal police officer, saying he did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Lee is reported to have overseen a drastic expansion of the unit’s mission.
The Post further reports that starting in April 2020, ITMS launched probes into authors of “dozens of social media posts” questioning the integrity of the U.S. Census, which is overseen by the Commerce Department, framing the probes in correspondence with the FBI as a legitimate effort to detect organised disinformation campaigns.
“The breadth of investigative authorities that the ITMS used over time without any meaningful oversight is alarming,” Wicker’s “fact sheet” says. “Whistleblowers claim that this construct allowed cases to be opened for purposes of intimidation and retribution, creating the allusion that an individual was under investigation when, in fact, no threat existed to Department personnel or property.”
According to Wicker, the investigation into the ITMS’s activities are ongoing and a full report of the findings will be released in the coming months.