For years, a security unit within the Commerce Department has allegedly run rampant, morphing into a full-scale counterintelligence force that investigates its employees and outside critics — without any apparent authorization or proper training to do so.
The antics of the Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS), whose surveillance training reportedly involves following supervisor George Lee as he zips around mountain roads in his car, were first reported earlier Monday by the Washington Post.
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has been investigating myriad whistleblower complaints since February and will release a report “in the coming months” about the security unit turned “rogue, unaccountable police force,” according to a fact sheet released by Committee ranking member Roger Wicker (R-MS) Monday.
According to a filing in a related lawsuit, that date may be as soon as June.
Wicker’s fact sheet summarized the investigation’s key findings so far.
Perhaps most troubling of all, according to the summary, is that multiple whistleblowers testified that the specter of threats to national security is being used as pretext to target Department employees with Chinese ancestry.
“In one instance, the ITMS investigated a Chinese-born scientist employed at the Department on charges of espionage, interrogating her for hours and drafting a criminal referral to federal prosecutors,” said the investigation fact sheet. “Officials ultimately found insufficient evidence after she was arrested and dropped all criminal charges.”
The case alluded to in the fact sheet seems to be that of Sherry Chen, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service office in Wilmington, Ohio and a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in China. The National Weather Service is housed under the Commerce Department. FBI agents arrested her in 2014 for allegedly leaking information about dams to a Chinese official. ITMS is credited in a Justice Department press release.
However, federal prosecutors in Ohio dropped the case against her within months. She has since sued in federal court for an arrest she alleges was based in racism and destroyed her career.
“At the agency, the Office of Security was determined to find Ms. Chen guilty of a crime and it prepared a maliciously false report detailing Ms. Chen’s alleged misconduct and, in doing so, ignored and then failed to disclose exculpatory evidence,” read the lawsuit.
The case has dragged on since Chen first sued in 2019, though her lawyers in late April asked for a stay in the court’s decision, citing “critical and significant information” that may affect its ruling.
“Any such evidence is expected to be available to publicly share with the Court and Defendants in June 2021 or soon afterwards,” the filing read, though it did not specify if the Senate Commerce committee report is the evidence in question. Wicker’s office did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for clarification.
Many such investigations still at the ITMS level have been left open for decades in an attempt to intimidate their subjects, the fact sheet alleged.
“The breadth of investigative authorities that the ITMS used over time without any meaningful oversight is alarming,” it read. “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.”
ITMS also had some intersection with the decennial census, as investigators “surveilled social media activity on Twitter to monitor accounts that posted commentary critical of processes used to conduct the U.S. Census,” the sheet alleged.
At the time, former President Donald Trump was trying to weaponize the census to rig congressional apportionment by excluding undocumented immigrants. He sought to ensure that more House seats would be dispersed to whiter, reliably Republican states at the expense of more immigrant-heavy Democratic ones. Trump ultimately failed in his manipulation of census data, as he departed the White House before the process had reached the point that he could impose the new policy.