Commerce Department Dipsh*t Tried To Run Very Own Illegal Spy Agency, Oops
In a real life version of that "Kids in the Hall" sketch where a mail clerk gets a promotion and goes mad with his very limited power, the Washington Post reveals that the supervisor of an "obscure security unit" in the Commerce Department got some funny ideas about what his job was supposed to be. The "Investigations and Threat Management Service"(ITMS) is supposed to be concerned with keeping Commerce officials and facilities safe, but under supervisor George Lee, ITMS morphed into a kind of counterintelligence outfit, but without any actual legal authority to do spy stuff. Under Lee, the unit did half-assed investigations of Commerce employees and regular Americans, based mostly on whatever whims Lee might have about how to protect the Commerce Department from enemies foreign and domestic.
This has the potential to make a really good dark farce, with the right director and screenplay. The unit
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.
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.
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.
And while that may sound like the sort of stuff Donald Trump loved doing, as with William Barr's turning the Justice Department into Trump's own vendetta operation, the mind-blowing thing about the ITMS abuses is that Lee appears to have taken the security unit off the rails long before Trump even ran for president. It's not even clear that anyone outside Commerce knew of Lee's weird investigations, which seem to have targeted people regardless of their political outlook. We have a feeling there's still a lot more to be discovered about all of this, but for the moment, it doesn't look like Lee was pursuing anyone's agenda but his own, regardless of Trump's misuse of executive power elsewhere. I think it's more like some minor gangster who was running his own scams well before the arrival of a new Don.
And here's another surprise: The whole mess drew the attention of what seems to be one of the few competent people in Wilbur Ross's Commerce Department, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Intelligence and Security John Costello, who was so concerned about internal probes of the office that he recommended last fall that ITMS be dissolved, although that recommendation was never acted upon by higher-ups. Costello resigned after the January 6 insurrection, because he apparently had some integrity.
After the Post started asking for comment on details, the Biden administration suspended all operations of the ITMS, so that's good!
The Post says Lee started at Commerce in 2004, and that former investigators for the unit "allege that the office routinely overstepped its legal limits and has operated without meaningful oversight from within Commerce since the mid-2000s." The story, by investigative reporter Shawn Boburg, concedes that it's "not clear preciselywhen Lee expanded the unit's portfolio" beyond its assigned duties of protecting Commerce facilities and personnel.
About a year into the job, Lee
appeared to acknowledge that special agents within the department had limited law enforcement powers. In a memo obtained by The Post, Lee wrote to his supervisors in the Office of Security that the office's agents "may lack legal authority to conduct an appreciable portion of its investigative efforts, particularly criminal investigations."
Nevertheless, he persisted, mostly because it seems nobody was paying much attention, for years, and by 2014, the office had put together an "investigative guide" with a
section entitled "counterintelligence inquiries" that instructs agents on "baseline steps," including determining whether there are "indicators of tradecraft."
The one time an ITMS investigation ever got much public attention, Boburg says, involved what looks like a pretty specious investigation of a Chinese-American employee of the National Weather Service, Sherry Chen, who was
arrested by the FBI in 2014 on suspicion that she was providing information about the nation's dams to a high-ranking Chinese official who was also a former classmate. Lee and the Investigations and Threat Management Division were credited in a Justice Department news release.
But the case was dropped by federal prosecutors just a few months later, with "no explanation in court filings." Chen is now suing the investigators and others, claiming her treatment involved "false arrest and malicious prosecution." That case is just in its early stages.
Other former investigators offered all sorts of charming examples of ITMS doing investigations for which it had little or no authority, like monitoring Commerce employees' emails to see if they were in contact with foreigns, and opening files on people who sent completely nonthreatening mail to the Commerce secretary. In one weird example, the office investigated a former member of Congress, a California Democrat who wrote to Wilbur Ross to let Ross know about a group he'd founded that Ross might just love, because the nonprofit "was working to promote the idea that the electoral college was unconstitutional because it was based on a census count that included 'noncitizens.'"
Almost everything about Lee's attempt to build his own personal KGB seems ploddingly amateurish. One former supervisor told Boburg that the outfit's operations seemed like "someone watched too many 'Mission Impossible' movies," and another former agent wrote, in a memo about an insane training program designed by Lee,
It was clear that SAC [special agent in charge] Lee had limited real world surveillance experience and it felt as if he learned it all by reading a book on it the day prior to class.
And hoo boy, that training program!
Investigators also complained that Lee compelled new hires to attend a training program he personally designed in the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia, according to documents and interviews with investigators who attended. For surveillance training, Lee made investigators trail him as he drove erratically at high speeds on mountain roads, investigators said.
It was "the most reckless and unsafe training I have ever attended," [former investigator Christopher] Cheung wrote to Costelloin a memo.
Cheung was also one of three agents who filed complaints about Lee and ITMS with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that Lee investigated Asian-American employees at Commerce solely on the basis of their ethnicity. In one nutso scheme,
Lee also ordered two agents to conduct broad searches on department servers, scanning Commerce employees' emails for certain Chinese-language keywords, Cheung's memo to Costello alleged. The keywords are listed in a document that characterizes them as words that appear in the names of talent recruitment programs sponsored by the Chinese government, a copy of the list shows.
The story doesn't cite particular examples, but we'll go out on a limb and assume the list of suspect words included all sorts of usages that might be used by either spies or ordinary bureaucrats.
In addition, ITMS agents did nighttime searches of offices, including looking in storage areas without permission, and even picking locks. They were all kitted out in spy gear, too!
During some covert searches, investigators wore the face masks and avoided or blocked the view of security cameras, former investigators said on the condition of anonymity to discuss the office's operations.
"It was so we didn't leave a trace," said one of the former investigators.
OK, but did they pretend they were dodging lasers, like Tom Cruise?
We have a feeling that, now that Mr. Lee has been relieved of his duties, a lot more on this is likely to come out. It promises to be equal parts hilarious and horrifying.
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