The Commerce Department’s security unit has evolved into a “counterintelligence-like” operation that tracks employees and social media users, The Washington Post reports.
The department’s Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS) secretly searched employee officers during the night, ran keyword searches through their emails for signs of foreign influence, and monitored social media posts for critical comments about the census, according to the outlet.
In one instance, the ITMS opened a case on a 68-year-old Florida retiree who tweeted that the census was being manipulated to “benefit the Trump Party.”
In another instance, the unit scoured the department’s servers for specific Chinese keywords, which “resulted in the monitoring of many Asian American employees over benign correspondence,” according to the report.
John Costello, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of intelligence and security at the department, told the Post that the unit “has been allowed to operate far outside the bounds of federal law enforcement norms and has created an environment of paranoia and retaliation at the Department.”
The unit “rests on questionable legal authority and has suffered from poor management and lack of sufficient legal and managerial oversight for much of its existence,” he added.
No legal authority:
Bruce Ridlen, the former supervisor of the unit, said its tactics seem like “someone watched too many ‘Mission Impossible’ movies.
Costello told the Post about an inspector general investigation that he said found the unit has “no legal authority to conduct criminal investigations.”
Costello investigated the unit in October and recommended disbanding it. He resigned after the January 6 Capitol riot before the department responded to his recommendation.
Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee have also investigated the unit, interviewing more than a dozen whistleblowers, some of whom alleged the office regularly overstepped its legal authority and operated without meaningful oversight.
Under President Joe Biden, new Commerce Department leaders ordered a temporary halt to the unit’s criminal investigations in March and suspended all activities earlier this month after the Post reached out about its article.
“The current Commerce Department leadership team takes this issue seriously,” spokesperson Brittany Caplin said in a statement. “The Department expects that at the end of the review it can and will implement a comprehensive solution to the issues raised.”