July 16, 2012
FDA Caught Spying On Whistleblowers
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) secretly kept critics of its policy under surveillance, secretly recording thousands of emails that the individuals sent privately to lawmakers, attorneys, labor officials, members of the media, and even the President of the United States.The operation, detailed by New York Times' reporters Eric Lichtblau and Scott Shane on Saturday, originated with an investigation into the possible leaking of confidential FDA information by a quartet of agency scientists.
Over time, however, it grew "into a much broader campaign to counter outside critics of the agency´s medical review process" and generated more than 80,000 pages of computer documents, according to Lichtblau and Shane.
"Moving to quell what one memorandum called the 'collaboration' of the FDA's opponents, the surveillance operation identified 21 agency employees, Congressional officials, outside medical researchers and journalists thought to be working together to put out negative and 'defamatory' information about the agency," they wrote.
"FDA officials defended the surveillance operation, saying that the computer monitoring was limited to the five scientists suspected of leaking confidential information about the safety and design of medical devices," Lichtblau and Shane added. "While they acknowledged that the surveillance tracked the communications that the scientists had with Congressional officials, journalists and others, they said it was never intended to impede those communications, but only to determine whether information was being improperly shared."
While the FDA is legally permitted to monitor activity on its own computers, the Daily Mail claims that they may have broken the law by intercepting certain types of documents with confidential privileges, including correspondence between an attorney and a client, a whistleblower complaint sent to members of Congress, or workplace grievances filed with the federal government.
"The discovered documents reveal that the FDA used spy-software which enabled them to track messages line by line as they were being written," the UK newspaper added. "The surveillance began with a dispute between FDA scientists and their bosses over the scientists´ assertion that the agency had approved medical imaging devices which exposed patients to dangerous radiation levels."
Reportedly, the issue began as a dispute between the quartet of scientists and superiors at the FDA, in which the former accused the latter of "faulty review procedures" which led to the approval of medical imaging devices used to conduct mammograms and colonoscopies. Those devices exposed patients to dangerous levels of radiation, according to a story published on the website of the San Francisco Chronicle.
"The documents captured in the surveillance effort -- including confidential letters to at least a half-dozen Congressional offices and oversight committees, drafts of legal filings and grievances, and personal e-mails -- were posted on a public Web site, apparently by mistake, by a private document-handling contractor that works for the FDA," Lichtblau and Shane reported, adding that the New York Times "reviewed the records and their day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour accounting of the scientists´ communications."
"With the documents from the surveillance cataloged in 66 huge directories, many Congressional staff members regarded as sympathetic to the scientists each got their own files containing all their e-mails to or from the whistle-blowers. Drafts and final copies of letters the scientists sent to Mr. Obama about their safety concerns were also included," they added. "Last year, the scientists found that a few dozen of their e-mails had been intercepted by the agency. They filed a lawsuit over the issue in September“¦ But the wide scope of the FDA surveillance operation, its broad range of targets across Washington, and the huge volume of computer information that it generated were not previously known, even to some of the targets."