According to an investigative oversight report released on Tuesday, the Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS) at the Department of Commerce has acted as “a rogue, unaccountable police force across multiple presidential administrations” for approximately 16 years.
Whistleblowers were the first to claim that the ITMS has become a “gestapo” involved in “a variety of improper activities dating back to the mid-2000s[,] involving abuses of authority, mismanagement, and reprisal against Department employees.”
From February to July, U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Minority Staff initiated more than 100 interviews and analyzed “thousands of documents supporting allegations from over two dozen whistleblowers.” Minority staff say they uncovered numerous examples of egregious misconduct by the ITMS, ranging from the improper seizure of police powers to “unchecked race-based targeting [that] disproportionately impacted employees of Chinese ancestry.”
‘Rogue’ Unit Illegally Conducted Counterintelligence
The Department of Commerce created the ITMS during the George W. Bush administration to “provide security services to the Secretary.” The unit is composed of a small team of criminal investigators based in Washington, DC, and has a satellite office in Boulder, Colorado.
The ITMS unit clearly “lacks statutory police powers,” but this does not appear to have stopped it from improperly exercising them, the report says. The ITMS seems to have quickly deviated from its official mission and to have “beg[u]n performing a law enforcement mission,” during which it “collaborated with agencies in the Intelligence Community to conduct counterintelligence operations, despite lacking any form of legal authorization to participate in these activities.”
“Under the Obama administration, the ITMS began regularly conducting criminal investigations related to threats against the Secretary and departmental assets, and eventually began using counterintelligence tools to gather information about both foreign visitors and U.S. citizens,” the investigative oversight report says. “The [ITMS] unit continued these activities until early in the Biden administration, despite lacking proper authorization to perform law enforcement functions on behalf of the Commerce Department.”
Former ITMS Agent Martin Kehoe went so far as to brag that, by exploiting vague terminology in the unit’s job description, it realized it “[could] operate like the FBI, CIA, [and] NSA with very little oversight.”
‘Frivolous’ Surveillance Targeted Potential Whistleblowers
According to the investigative oversight report, ITMS leaders knew its behaviors were illegal, but proceeded anyway.
ITMS agents carried firearms, conducted warrantless searches, monitored wire and electronic communications, and maintained a database of information on both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals. And they reportedly failed to adhere to law enforcement norms and expectations, such as “informing witnesses and subjects of their rights [and] properly documenting investigative efforts.”
Criminal referrals from the ITMS have allegedly been so flawed that “Successful prosecutions of cases investigated by ITMS are few in number.”
It gets worse. “In early 2020,” the investigative oversight report says, “the ITMS began surveilling social media activity to monitor accounts that posted commentary critical of processes used to conduct the U.S. Census.” ITMS investigators also seem to have monitored the Facebook and Twitter accounts of U.S. citizens.
Meanwhile, the ITMS appears to have targeted its own employees. “Across the Department of Commerce, the ITMS opened frivolous investigations on a variety of employees without probable cause for the purpose of exaggerating the unit’s ability to uncover security threats within the civil service,” the investigative oversight report says.
As a consequence of these probes, targeted employees reportedly had their security clearances suspended or revoked without merit.
The report says ITMS officials specifically targeted and retaliated against employees who were “unwilling to engage in practices they viewed as inappropriate or unlawful,” meaning that those who challenged their unit’s misconduct were punished.
The report also says, “The ITMS […] broadly targeted departmental divisions with comparably high proportions of Asian-American employees, ostensibly to counter attempts of espionage by individuals with Chinese ancestry.”
The Chinese Communist Party uses espionage as its “primary tool” to improve technological capabilities. “Safeguarding key interests against this threat to U.S. security, however, does not absolve any department in the federal government from operating within the bounds of the law,” the report emphasizes. It slams the ITMS for allegedly targeting Asian employees at a disproportionate rate, during its internal investigations.
‘Inadequate Oversight’ Enabled Shocking Violations
In addition to weak oversight and poor management, the report says, “Deficient policies and procedures […] led to repeated instances of malfeasance, including the purposeful prolonging of investigations, unauthorized use of secured messaging systems, and overclassification of documents to protect the unit from outside scrutiny.” The ITMS even appears to have used a slush fund to further benefit from minimal transparency.
Starting in 2017, the Office of Inspector General Peggy Gustafan (OIG) began an ongoing review of complaints concerning the ITMS. However, the report says, “Despite clear and convincing evidence, the Inspector General failed to identify and address the unit’s deficiency of law enforcement authority and [has not] satisfactorily act[ed] upon the finding that the ITMS collaborated with the Intelligence Community.”
The report claims that, “Because of inadequate oversight by the Inspector General’s office, the unit’s improper exercises of law enforcement powers likely resulted in preventable violations of civil liberties and other constitutional rights, as well as a gross abuse of taxpayer funds.”