Commerce unit went ‘rogue’, says Senate report, targeting Chinese Americans

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Commerce unit went ‘rogue’, says Senate report, targeting Chinese Americans

WASHINGTON — Officials from a little-known security unit within the Commerce Department conducted unauthorized surveillance and investigations into agency employees that targeted people of Chinese and Middle Eastern descent, Senate investigators said in a new report.

The report, reported by more than two dozen whistle-blowers and released this week by Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Commerce Committee, concluded that the Investigation and Threat Management Service had been “a rogue” for more than a decade. acted as an irresponsible police force,” opening thousands of unauthorized investigations into department employees, often for specific reasons.

It found that office work – largely consumed by concerns about Chinese espionage in the United States – sometimes turned to racial profiling, and its leaders used extreme tactics, such as employing masked agents. Breaking into offices and sending them to look for evidence.

“While countering the national security threats posed by China should be a priority for any agency, it does not give the federal government a license to disobey the law,” Mr Wicker said in a statement. “Abuse of authority and race-based targeting is unacceptable, especially in law enforcement.”

According to the report, an internal security office inside the Department of Commerce agreed to root out foreign espionage, resorting to searching employees’ email accounts for certain phrases in Chinese and background searches through secure intelligence databases. Marking “ethnic surnames” for scrutiny. . In some cases, its agents secretly searched the offices of employees wearing face masks and gloves, sometimes breaking locks to gain entry.

Unit leaders often refused to close investigations into employees, even when agents could not find incriminating evidence, at times leaving researchers or other employees in administrative limbo. Senate investigators said about 2,000 cases remained open as of the end of last year.

In recent years, US law enforcement officials have become increasingly concerned that China is expanding its espionage efforts into the United States and visiting Chinese scholars for intelligence gathering purposes. The Senate report described how those fears fueled an aggressive, unauthorized counterintelligence effort inside a department that has scientific agencies staffed by researchers from around the world. The result, it said, was a discriminatory effort to target and spy on people of Asian and Middle Eastern descent — many of them Chinese Americans, but some from Iran and Iraq — even in the absence of reasonable suspicion. .

Under the Biden administration, department officials suspended the unit’s investigation and began an internal review of the program in April, a spokesperson said, It said officials were investigating Mr Wicker’s report and took the allegations against the office “very seriously”.

The spokesman said officials expect their internal review “to conclude in the coming weeks, at which point the department will share its plans to address the issues raised.”

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Mr Wicker’s report was the culmination of a six-month Senate investigation in which investigators interviewed more than two dozen whistle-blowers and combed through a slew of internal documents. The Washington Post reported some of the initial findings of the investigation in May while the investigation was still active.

Senate investigators painted a picture of an entity that regularly engaged in unethical or unsafe activities that were outside its scope of authority and that its employees were not trained to do so. The report indicated that the bulk of those efforts were driven by one official over the course of several administrations: George Lee, the unit’s longtime director, who has since been placed on leave.

Mr. Lee could not be reached for comment on Friday.

The report states that the unit’s investigators surveyed social media activity for remarks criticizing the census, and then ran the commentators’ names through classified databases, “intelligence to use these databases for this purpose.” Despite having vague authority from the community,” the report said.

A whistle-blower who assisted with the investigation and was later interviewed by The New York Times said the investigation’s attention to disgruntled social media comments was particularly disappointing because the unit did not comply with threats made against census staff. – in which commenters wrote on Facebook, for example, that they would shoot a scorer if they came to his house.

The report noted that much of the unit’s focus was looking within the Commerce Department for perceived threats that often targeted “employees well-known in their professional fields”, with many of the investigations targeting subjects of Chinese or Middle Eastern descent. Used to do

Investigators said the practice was “in early 2014” during the Obama administration, and that the unit specifically targeted “departmental divisions with a comparatively high proportion of Asian American employees.”

An internal document reviewed by The Times reveals that employees’ email accounts were widely used as “funds,” “government support” and “project lead” for words written in Chinese characters to unit employees. were encouraged to find, which were apparently meant to weed out the participating employees. In a Chinese talent recruitment program. Two former employees said in independent interviews that any matching language found in an employee’s inbox would prompt an investigation.

The whistle-blower spoke to the committee and The Times on condition of anonymity to discuss internal agency matters.

In one instance, according to a whistle-blower, following such an inbox search the unit conducted a covert search of an employee’s office, which revealed that the worker had received a certificate from a Chinese research partner in which the employee Was designated as an expert in his given field.

“If commerce is serious about protecting American equities, it cannot be at the expense of American constitutional rights,” said Chris Cheung, a former investigator for the Investigation and Threat Management Service, who reported the activity to its supervisors. Said in an interview. Mr Cheung described the unit’s conduct as “somebody who was randomly given guns and badges didn’t get training, so they acted based on what they saw in the movies.”

A former senior Commerce Department official interviewed by Senate investigators described Asian American employees as “a fine line between additional scrutiny and xenophobia, and one that ITMS routinely crosses”.

Unit officials investigating Sherry Chen, an award-winning hydrologist in the National Weather Service and a naturalized US citizen born in China, became a high-profile case in which Ms. Chen was accused of espionage, arrested and told that he faced 25 years in prison and a fine of $1 million. A week before going to trial, prosecutors dropped all charges against Ms Chen without explanation.

Ms Chen told Senate investigators in an interview that the unit’s agents “provided her with paper to draft a statement and instructed her to write down the drafted words after telling her that she had to ask a lawyer.” There is no need to consult.”

Whistle-blowers also reported attending a training session in Virginia in which the unit’s director instructed his employees to follow them “at high speed” in state-owned vehicles.

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