WASHINGTON – Officials from a little-known security unit at the Commerce Department conducted unauthorized surveillance and investigations into the agency’s employees targeting people of Chinese and Middle Eastern descent, Senate investigators said in a new report.
The report, informed by more than two dozen whistleblowers and released this week by Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Republican chief on the Commerce Committee, concluded that the Investigations and Threat Management Service had been a “villain.” “Unaccountable Police” opens thousands of unauthorized investigations into department employees, often for flimsy reasons.
It found that the bureau’s work – consumed by concern about rampant Chinese espionage in the United States – sometimes turned into racial profiling and its leaders used extreme tactics such as breaking into offices with masked agents, to look for incriminating evidence.
“Countering national security threats from China should be a priority for any agency, but that doesn’t give the federal government a license to disobey the law,” Wicker said in a statement. “Abuse of authority and race-based targeting are unacceptable, especially in law enforcement.”
The unit, an internal security bureau within the Commerce Department, was determined to eradicate foreign espionage by searching employees’ email accounts for certain Chinese phrases and flagging “ethnic surnames” for background checks through secure intelligence databases. In some cases, his agents covertly searched employees’ offices wearing face masks and gloves, and sometimes cracked locks to gain entry.
Department heads often refused to open investigations into employees even after agents were unable to find incriminating evidence, sometimes leaving researchers or other employees in administrative limbo. Almost 2,000 cases were still open at the end of last year, Senate investigators said.
In recent years, American law enforcement agencies have become increasingly concerned that China is expanding its espionage efforts in the United States and visiting Chinese scholars to gather information. The Senate report set out how these fears fueled an aggressive, unauthorized counterintelligence within a division that houses scientific agencies staffed with researchers from around the world. The result is a discriminatory attempt to spy on people of Asian and Middle Eastern descent – many of them Chinese Americans, but some from Iran and Iraq – even when there is no reasonable suspicion.
Under the Biden administration, department officials stopped investigating the unit and began an internal review of the program in April, a spokeswoman said: He added that officials examined Mr. Wicker’s report and took the allegations against the office “very seriously”.
The spokeswoman said officials expected their internal review “to be completed in the coming weeks, at which time the department will share its plans to resolve the issues raised.”
Mr Wicker’s report was the culmination of a six-month Senate investigation in which investigators interviewed more than two dozen whistleblowers and combed through a plethora of internal documents. The Washington Post reported some of the first results of the investigation in May, while the investigation was still active.
Senate investigators painted the picture of a unit that routinely engaged in unethical or unsafe activities that were beyond their purview and for which their staff were not trained. The report showed that the bulk of this effort was driven over the course of several terms by one official: George Lee, the unit’s longtime director, who has since been on leave.
Mr. Lee was unavailable on Friday for comment.
The unit’s investigators monitored social media activity to criticize comments on the census and then ran the names of the commentators through secret databases, “despite the unclear authority of the secret services to use those databases for this purpose,” it said Report.
A whistleblower who assisted the investigation and was subsequently interviewed by the New York Times said the focus on investigating dissenting social media comments was particularly frustrating as the unit did not pursue threats against census staff – even when commentators left on Facebook wrote that they would shoot a counter if they came into their house, for example.
Much of the unit’s focus has been on searching within the Department of Commerce for perceived threats, often targeting “people well known in their profession,” the report said, with many of these investigations targeting people of Chinese or Middle Eastern descent.
Investigators said the practice “went back to 2014” during the Obama administration and that the unit specifically targeted “departmental departments with a comparatively high percentage of Asian-American employees.”
An internal document checked by The Times reveals that department employees were encouraged to search employees’ email accounts for terms in Chinese characters such as “funds,” “government support,” and “project manager,” allegedly to find the participating employees in a Chinese talent recruiting program. Any matching language in an employee’s inbox would trigger an investigation, two former employees said in independent interviews.
An increase in anti-Asian attacks
Last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, a flurry of hatred and violence against people of Asian descent began in the United States.
- Background: Community leaders say the bigotry was fueled by President Donald J. Trump, who often used racist terms such as “Chinese virus” to refer to the coronavirus.
- Data: The New York Times used media reports from across the country to get a sense of the rising tide of anti-Asian bias, and found more than 110 episodes since March 2020 in which there was clear evidence of racial hatred.
- Undervalued Hate crimes: The balance sheet may be a fraction of the violence and harassment given the general undercount of hate crimes, but the broad survey captures episodes of violence across the country that have increased in number due to Mr Trump’s comments.
- In New York: A wave of xenophobia and violence has been exacerbated by the economic fallout from the pandemic that dealt a severe blow to the Asian-American communities in New York. Many community leaders say racist abuse is overlooked by the authorities.
- What happened in Atlanta: Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in gunfights at massage parlors in Atlanta on March 16. A Georgia prosecutor said the shootings at the Atlanta area spa were hate crimes and that she will pursue the death penalty against the suspect. who is charged with murder.
The whistleblowers spoke to the committee and the Times on condition of anonymity to discuss internal agency matters.
In one case, according to a whistleblower, the unit conducted an undercover search of an employee’s office after an inbox search revealed that the employee had received a certificate from a Chinese research partner identifying the employee as an expert in his or her field has been.
“If Commerce is serious about protecting US stocks, it must not be at the expense of US constitutional rights,” said Chris Cheung, a former investigator for the Investigations and Threat Management Service who reported the activity to his superiors, in an interview. Mr. Cheung described the unit’s behavior as if “someone who was arbitrarily given a gun and badge was not given training, so he operated on what he saw in movies.”
A former senior Commerce Department official interviewed by Senate investigators described the attacks on Asian-American workers as “a fine line between extra control and xenophobia that ITMS routinely crosses.”
Unit officials investigated Sherry Chen, an award-winning National Weather Service hydrologist and naturalized American citizen who was born in China, and paved the way for a high-profile case in which Ms. Chen was arrested and charged with espionage, and said she was threatened 25 Years in prison and a million dollar fine. A week before she was due to be tried, the prosecution dropped all charges against Ms. Chen without explanation.
Ms. Chen told Senate investigators in an interview that Unit agents “provided her paper to draft a statement and instructed her to write words they prepared after telling her that.” she does not need to consult a lawyer ”.
Whistleblowers also reported attending a training session in Virginia where the director of the unit instructed his staff to chase him “at high speed” in state-owned vehicles.