An internal security force at the Commerce Department went rogue for years, investigating an elementary school child, wasting millions as sidelined employees whiled the days away watching Netflix and derailing careers with frivolous investigations, according to a new report produced by Ranking Member Roger Wicker’s (R-MS) minority staff at the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
The force, the Commerce Department Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS), was alleged to have engaged in numerous questionable practices by a fact sheet Wicker’s team put out in late May.
Democrats on the committee were not involved in the investigation.
“The report was based on information received from whistleblowers who contacted Sen. Wicker’s office,” a committee aide for the Democratic majority told TPM. “We were supportive of their efforts to conduct oversight and their decision to keep those whistleblower interactions confidential. Since being notified of this issue we have been in close contact with the Department of Commerce and the Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General, and we appreciate their decision to stand down this group’s activities pending an investigation.”
The alleged practices of the ITMS, also detailed in a May Washington Post report, included disproportionately targeting for investigation employees of Chinese ancestry in the hope of discovering links to the Chinese government; surveilling officials’ social media accounts for criticism about the Trump administration’s handling of the Census; and leaving internal investigations open on purpose as a tool of intimidation.
But the new full report includes additional anecdotes that paint a picture of a force out of control.
In one instance, the report details ITMS agents opening an investigation into an elementary school child who wrote the department with a petition about adding a certain type of whale to a list of protected marine wildlife.
“To any reasonable observer, the letter posed no threat to the Department,” the report said. “The ITMS, nonetheless, not only opened a case but conducted a search of the author’s name—a minor—in government databases like the FBI’s National Crime Information Center and the Department of Homeland Security’s Targeted Violence Information Sharing System.”
In another episode, the ITMS began investigating the entire staff of the Commerce Department Office of Executive Security for supposed security violations, according to the report.
While ITMS conducted the investigation, the OES employees were sidelined and sequestered in conference rooms. While an ITMS official oversaw them, the employees reportedly resorted to watching Netflix, playing on their phones and making something called “Gummy Bear art” while on the clock. It cost about $1.1 million to the taxpayer and resulted in zero prosecutions, as the three referrals ITMS ultimately made to the Department of Justice were all declined, the report said.
The report also provided more details about a training session for new ITMS agents that was detailed in the Post report back in May. Trainees reportedly had to follow supervisor George Lee, playing the “rabbit,” in government vehicles at extremely high speeds on rural roads in an area lacking cellular coverage. Lee, the report said, recruited “role players” to surprise armed and unsuspecting ITMS agents for simulations that took place in banks and government facilities.
Lee also taught the trainees courses on forensic analytics, which, a whistleblower with expertise in the field told the report’s authors, made clear that he had no qualifications in or understanding of the subject.
“Following two weeks of training, which cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars, no trainee passed the course,” the report said. “These training sessions lacked any form of accreditation, meaning it is likely that Lee made them up.”
The report also alleges a series of episodes in which ITMS employees, either out of retaliation or an attempt to build an impressive casefile, opened frivolous internal investigations that resulted in everything from security clearance delay to full career derailment.
One such investigation, the report said, was launched against a veteran who had been hired to establish internal controls on the unit, after he left. ITMS officials were trying to divine whether employees had leaked information to him after his departure. They reportedly referred to him as “Bone Chip” in a series of emails, a derogatory reference to his physical disability which required the use of a cane.
In spite of no evidence found, the report said, three employees — all of whom were close with the official during his time at the department — had their access to sensitive compartmented information facilities (SCIFs) suspended.
Other investigations into employees allegedly entailed reopening long-closed probes, and rehashing already completed background checks.
The report also mentions briefly — without linking any documentation or citing a source — that ITMS “allegedly” investigated an unnamed lawmaker, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The lawmaker had submitted a letter to then-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in 2019 articulating opposition to processes used by the department in conducting the Census.
The report shows a department run amok, with agents donning facemasks and gloves to lockpick cabinets and scour digital records for evidence of employee wrongdoing. Employees with even the most tenuous ties to China were reportedly targeted even more than their colleagues.
“Whistleblowers claim, for example, that agents were directed to run ethnic surnames through secure databases even in the absence of evidence suggesting potential risk to national security, indicating that immutable characteristics served as a pre-text for initiating investigations,” the report said.
The report closes with a series of recommendations, including for a review from the administration for any potential referrals of criminal misconduct to prosecutorial authorities stemming from closed ITMS investigations.