Sep 4, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Commerce Department shutters security unit accused of racial profiling

Photo of the front exterior of the Commerce Department building
Photo: Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge via Getty Images

The Department of Commerce said Friday it has shut down a security unit after an internal review concluded that the unit conducted criminal investigations without adequate authority.

Why it matters: The Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS) was the subject of a July Senate report that alleged use of "race-based" investigations targeting department employees of Asian and Middle Eastern descent.

  • The unit seized "work phones and computers to perform digital content searches, and picked the locks of offices and personal storage containers," per the Senate report.

Details: The Commerce Department created the ITMS to boost security services for the secretary during the George W. Bush administration, but it took on a law enforcement role with a broad scope shortly after its establishment.

  • In June 2019, the Commerce's Office of Inspector General received a complaint with evidence of the unit's potential misconduct.

The internal review, which the Commerce chief of staff ordered in April, found that ITMS did not provide adequate training to its staff, required "excessive use" of non-disclosure agreements and lacked clear oversight in its mission.

  • ITMS also repeatedly "engaged in broad searches of Department of Commerce servers for particular phrases and words in Mandarin as part of talent recruitment investigations," the OIG report says.
  • The unit would ask other department bureaus to run the terms across their own servers as well.

Though the OIG report did not find "firsthand or documentary evidence" of racially motivated investigations, but noted that the broad searches are "understandably viewed with suspicion by employees, oversight authorities, and those outside the Department given the absence of adequate policies, procedures, and oversight governing ITMS activities."

What they're saying: The Commerce Department has accepted the OIG's recommendations and will eliminate ITMS within 90 days.

  • "We are committed to maintaining our security, but also equally committed to protecting the privacy and civil liberties of our employees and the public," Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in a statement.
  • "This report and the actions we are taking underscore our commitment that the Department operate with respect for the rule of law, the rights of employees and the American people," she added.

The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) praised the decision. "State-led xenophobia and prejudice against Asian Americans and Middle Easterners has led to greater public suspicion of these communities and contributed to an historic rise in hate crimes and incidents," CAPAC Chairwoman Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

  • "While there are legitimate national security concerns related to China, there is no place for the kind of racial profiling conducted by ITMS in our government," Chu noted.
  • "[O]ur communities will not be safe and equal until we put an end to all racial profiling, like the China Initiative, which presume individuals are national security threats based only on their ethnicity."
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