Biden Administration Shuts Down Rogue Commerce Department Investigative Unit
The Biden administration has shut down a rogue unit within the Commerce Department that has secretly investigated American citizens and the department’s own employees for more than a decade despite not having the legal authority to do so.
The Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS) covertly searched employees’ offices at night, ran broad keyword searches of their emails trying to surface signs of foreign influence and scoured Americans’ social media for critical comments about the census, according to documents and interviews with five former investigators who cooperated with a Washington Post investigation.
ITMS’s primary function was intended to be the protection of the Commerce Department’s officials and facilities around the country. But under the direction of career supervisor George D. Lee, WaPo reports, the unit began engaging in operations and utilizing tactics devised by “someone (who) watched too many ‘Mission Impossible’ movies,” according to Bruce Ridlen, a former supervisor at the department.
With then secretary Wilbur Ross at the helm, ITMS began a series of inquiries beginning in April 2020 into the authors of social media posts that questioned the integrity or fairness of the census, according to internal records. The cases were billed as an effort to detect any “organized disinformation campaign,” according to a memo the unit sent to the FBI.
In one instance, a tweet by a 68-year-old Florida retiree caused the unit to open an investigation. The man, who has just over 100 followers on the social network, had written, “Like everything Trump has touched, I expect the Census to be corrupted and falsified to benefit the Trump Party!” Speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of being harassed for his anti-Trump political views, the man told WaPo, “I’m not part of any disinformation campaign. I’m just an American. I just expressed my opinion online.”
Incoming Commerce leaders from the Biden administration ordered ITMS to pause all criminal investigations on March 10, and on May 13 ordered the suspension of all activities after preliminary results of an ongoing review, according to a statement issued by department spokeswoman Brittany Caplin.
The suspension came two days after WaPo presented its findings about the unit to the department and sought interviews.