U.S. Agency Used Racial Profiling to Investigate Commerce Dept. Employees, Report Says

 An obscure federal office operated for more than a decade as an “unaccountable police force” inside the Commerce Department, using extreme and unauthorized tactics.

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

The report, informed 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 Investigations and Threat Management Service functioned for more than a decade as “a rogue, unaccountable police force,” opening thousands of unauthorized investigations into department employees, often for specious reasons.

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It found that the work of the office — consumed by concerns about rampant Chinese espionage in the United States — sometimes veered into racial profiling, and that its leaders used extreme tactics, such as sending masked agents to break into offices to search for incriminating evidence.

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

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The unit, an internal security office inside the Commerce Department, became fixated on rooting out foreign espionage, according to the report, resorting to searching employees’ email accounts for certain phrases in Chinese and flagging “ethnic surnames” for background checks through secure intelligence databases. In some cases, its agents would covertly search employees’ offices wearing face masks and gloves, sometimes picking locks to gain entry.

Unit leaders often refused to close investigations into employees even after agents were unable to find incriminating evidence, at times leaving researchers or other employees in administrative limbo. Almost 2,000 cases remained open at the end of last year, Senate investigators said.

The unit, an internal security office inside the Commerce Department, became fixated on rooting out foreign espionage, according to the report, resorting to searching employees’ email accounts for certain phrases in Chinese and flagging “ethnic surnames” for background checks through secure intelligence databases. In some cases, its agents would covertly search employees’ offices wearing face masks and gloves, sometimes picking locks to gain entry.

Unit leaders often refused to close investigations into employees even after agents were unable to find incriminating evidence, at times leaving researchers or other employees in administrative limbo. Almost 2,000 cases remained open at the end of last year, Senate investigators said.

In recent years, American law enforcement officials have become increasingly concerned that China is expanding its spying efforts in the United States and using visiting Chinese scholars for intelligence-gathering purposes. The Senate report laid out how those fears fueled an aggressive, unauthorized counterespionage effort inside a department that houses 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 investigations and began an internal review of the program in April, a spokeswoman said,  adding that officials were examining Mr. Wicker’s report and took the allegations against the office “very seriously.”

The spokeswoman said officials expected their internal review to conclude “in the coming weeks, at which point the department will share its plans for addressing the issues that have been raised.”

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