Donald Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross transformed a little security unit into a “counterintelligence operation.” He sicced it upon hundreds of individuals both inside and outside of the department. Former Supervisor Bruce Ridlen said “[It was like] someone watched too many Mission Impossible movies,” according to The Washington Post.
The Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS) went through employees’ offices at night and keyword searched their emails. They were looking for critical comments about the census.
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Intelligence and Security in the Commerce Department, John Costello, released this statement:
‘[The office] 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. [ITMS] rests on questionable legal authority and has suffered from poor management and lack of sufficient legal and managerial oversight for much of its existence.’
President Joe Biden’s Commerce Department spokeswoman Brittany Caplin noted that he paused all department criminal investigations on March 10. After The Post reported on the story May 13, he ordered all activities halt:
‘The current Commerce Department leadership team takes this issue seriously. The Department expects that at the end of the review it can and will implement a comprehensive solution to the issues raised.’
The Republican Party minority Senate Commerce Committee staff for Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) started investigating the ITMS’s early this year. Over a dozen whistleblowers gave closed-door statements. These included former investigators. They found the Commerce Department’s ITMS “routinely overstepped its legal limits.”
After the January 6 insurrection, Costello resigned. In comparison, the ITMS office has 17 employees and a $5.38 million budget versus the entire department with 54,000 employees and a $15.2 billion budget.
Caplin wrote about Career Supervisor and ITMS acting Director from August until Trump left, George Lee. He was in the unit for decades. She wrote:
‘[He is] not currently supervising the work or the employees of ITMS, and is not performing any investigatory duties.’
Former investigators said that in recent years the unit operated under a broad interpretation of its powers and its investigative purview.
- ‘[The ITMS] looked for suspicious foreign connections among employees and surreptitiously monitored employees’ communications on work computers and phones.’
- ‘[It] opened cases on people who wrote nonthreatening letters to the Commerce secretary, documents showed. One was a former federal lawmaker.’
- Via a word search, ‘the unit investigated many Asian American employees.’
A former Democratic representative from California for over a decade, Jim Bates wrote Secretary Ross in late 2019:
‘Bates wrote that his group was working to promote the idea that the electoral college was unconstitutional because it was based on a census count that included “noncitizens.”’
ITMS opened a case on Bates, who said:
‘I think it’s absurd. They’re bureaucrats who create these things because they don’t really deal with substantive issues.’
In April 2020, the ITMS investigated dozens of individuals posting social media posts about any “organized disinformation campaign.”
Unit Supervisor Ridlen quit in about six months:
‘I chose to resign from my position with ITMS after it became clear there was no authority to perform law enforcement functions. There were no policies in place to outline standards of conduct or to establish parameters for investigative activities, which led to investigative inquiries of U.S. persons over protected free speech found on several social media platforms.’
Spokesperson for the Marshals Service, James Stossel, said deputizing agents was designed for the Secretary of Commerce’s protection. There has long been an agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service, which offers law enforcement cabilities to Commerce for that specific purpose. Former Deputy Assistant Secretary John Costello sent an internal Commerce Department report questioning this.
By October 23, the ITMC had 1,183 open cases from 2018 or earlier. Former investigator Christopher Cheung emailed then-Secretary Ross:
‘Mr. Lee has discriminately targeted ethnic Chinese foreign guests/visitors and employees as well as other ethnic personnel. When investigations on these ethnic personnel are inconclusive, Mr. Lee refuses to allow agents to close the cases.’
Costello “received numerous credible complaints against George Lee, his investigators, and the ITMS investigation writ-large.” He wrote:
‘Most significantly, George Lee’s management has made it difficult or impossible for a supervisor to conduct meaningful oversight and decision-making over ITMS investigations’ These problems have persisted despite numerous attempts at correction by supervisors.’
‘[The unit carried equipment for] covert searches, kept in duffel bags, included latex gloves, shoe coverings, hairnets, balaclava-style face masks and a lock-picking set, according to two former investigators and a current Commerce employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss unit operations.’
An ITMS letter to the FBI included a post by a 68-year-old retiree in Florida with just over 100 followers.
‘I’m not part of any disinformation campaign. I’m just an American. I just expressed my opinion online.’