Trump's Commerce Chief Oversaw Security Unit That Spied On Census Critics
Reprinted with permission from Alternet
During Donald Trump's four years as president, his administration was a revolving door. But one person who was part of the Trump Administration throughout most of his presidency was former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who started in February 2017 and stayed until February 2021. The Department of Commerce, as journalist Shawn Boburg reports in an article published by the Washington Post on May 24, has had an "obscure security unit" that was "tasked with protecting" its "officials and facilities" — and during its Trump/Ross era, according to Boburg, it "evolved into something more akin to a counterintelligence operation that collected information on hundreds of people inside and outside the Department."
According to Boburg, "The Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS) covertly searched employees' offices at night, ran broad keyword searches of their e-mails trying to surface signs of foreign influence and scoured Americans' social media for critical comments about the (2020 U.S.) Census, according to documents and interviews with five former investigators. In one instance, the unit opened a case on a 68-year-old retiree in Florida who tweeted that the Census, which is run by the Commerce Department, would be manipulated 'to benefit the Trump Party,' records show."
Boburg adds, "In another example, the unit searched Commerce servers for particular Chinese words, documents show. The search resulted in the monitoring of many Asian-American employees over benign correspondence, according to two former investigators."
John Costello, who formerly served as deputy assistant secretary of intelligence and security for the Commerce Department under the Trump Administration, is highly critical of ITMS — telling the Post that ITMS "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."
Bruce Ridlen, a former supervisor, told the Post that the ITMS' tactics make it look as though "someone watched too many 'Mission Impossible' movies."
Ridlen, who left ITMS in October 2020, told the Post, "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."
Former Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo was sworn in as commerce secretary under President Joe Biden in early March.
Boburg explains, "(ITMS) has managed to keep a low public profile until now, while pursuing investigations into 'counterintelligence, transnational crime and counterterrorism,' as it described its activities in a 2018 budget document submitted to Congress. 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 the Post presented its findings about the unit to the department and sought interviews."
The statement read, "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."
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