WaPo: Commerce Security Unit Searched Employees’ Offices, Scanned Social Media For Census Critics

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 11: U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement on the census with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross (L) in the Rose Garden of the White House on July 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mar... WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 11: U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement on the census with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross (L) in the Rose Garden of the White House on July 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) MORE LESS
May 24, 2021 11:31 a.m.

In recent years, a security unit meant to protect Commerce Department officials morphed into a force so aggressive that its members rifled through employees’ offices and combed through social media sites for criticism of the census process under the Trump administration, according to the Washington Post.

The Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS) also looked specifically through the department’s servers for usage of Chinese words, leading to investigations of Asian American employees.

“A recent OIG inquiry has found that the deputation of ITMS under this program does not authorize ITMS to conduct criminal investigations and is intended only for the protection of the Secretary and Department critical assets — meaning facilities and people,” wrote former Deputy Assistant Secretary John Costello in an internal report last fall. “This raises significant questions as to whether ITMS has been exceeding its delegated authority or acting beyond its legal remit in its investigations.” 

Investigators would reportedly disguise themselves in face masks and, armed with lock-picking kits, conduct such actions as breaking into a worker’s cabinet. The training for investigators entailed trailing ITMS supervisor George Lee as he wildly swerved through roads in the Shenandoah Mountains —  supposedly part of a program to teach the newcomers surveillance skills. 

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New leaders of the department under President Joe Biden ordered a pause on all criminal investigations in March, followed by a suspension of all activities two weeks ago.

Staff of Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee, has been investigating the unit since earlier this year, conducting closed-door hearings with witnesses who testified that the unit overstepped legal boundaries.

The probes into social media criticism of the census process began in April 2020, according to the Washington Post, and were reportedly sold as an attempt to weed out any coordinated disinformation campaign. 

During the Trump administration, the census was weaponized to try to rig congressional apportionment. Former President Donald Trump wanted to exclude undocumented immigrants to redistribute House seats away from immigrant-heavy states to whiter, usually more Republican ones. The administration also put the Census Bureau on an extremely tight timeline — one that would allow it to finish its field work in time so that Trump could impose his new policy before leaving the White House following a potential loss in the November election. 

The administration went to court, filled the top level of the Bureau with political appointees and made extreme changes to census operations, all in service of that goal. But ultimately, Trump failed due to a combination of unrealistic time constraints, incompetence and the heightened complications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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