US government to shutter division that reportedly scoured social media for census disinformation

The Commerce Department's Investigations and Threat Management Service is being shut down following a probe into allegations of misconduct.

Brian Bennett Former Senior writer
Brian Bennett is a former senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET.
Brian Bennett
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The US Department of Commerce will shut down its ITMS division.

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The US Department of Commerce said Friday that it will close its Investigations and Threat Management Service division. It said it'll do so within 90 days and will also end all criminal investigations initiated by the division.

The actions are the culmination of an internal review by the department's Office of General Counsel, which investigated the ITMS following allegations of misconduct and abuse of authority. In May, The Washington Post reported that the ITMS had opened investigations on private citizens who were critical on social media of the census, which is run by the Department of Commerce. It had also surveilled the correspondence of Asian American employees in the department to look for signs of foreign influence.

"Our most important priority is creating an environment at the Department of Commerce where employees feel safe and respected," Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in a statement. "We are committed to maintaining our security, but also equally committed to protecting the privacy and civil liberties of our employees and the public."

The review found that the Commerce Department exercised "inadequate management" over ITMS, including failing to provide a "clear justification" for allowing the unit to intervene in Census Bureau efforts to combat disinformation. It also said the ITMS didn't have the "adequate legal authority" to undertake the types of criminal probes it was pursuing. 

"The Commerce Department leadership team took the ITMS allegations very seriously and upon learning about the concerns, immediately suspended all criminal enforcement activity," said Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves. "Commerce leadership has reviewed and accepted the recommendations in the report and will begin implementation immediately."

In addition to shutting down ITMS, the Commerce Department will also update its polices related to "administrative security investigations and insider threat functions" and establish an oversight framework for these activities.

A spokesperson for the Department of Commerce declined to offer any further comment. The full report can be read here (PDF).