FDA Kept an ‘Enemies List’ on Whistleblowing Scientists

Using spyware, the FDA tapped into private documents and e-mails between scientists and government officials.

Whistleblowers exist to guard against abuses, but the FDA has a different opinion on the matter. (Allen Donikowski/Getty Images)
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When federal employees share information with outside sources, administrations tend to get nervous, especially when those employees might have an axe to grind. So if you're the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), what do you do? You snoop through thousands of private e-mails belonging to FDA scientists and try to stop whistleblowing at its source. At least, that's what happened in 2010, The New York Times reports.

With a list of potential threatening persons and agencies in hand, the FDA stealthily surveyed e-mail accounts of sour scientists who had contacted Congress, lawyers, journalists, and even President Obama with concerns. More than 80,000 pages of documents came out of the FDA's surveillance effort, and 21 agency employees, Congressional officials, medical researchers, and journalists were targeted as collaborators working to "defame" the FDA. 

The process began simply enough: the FDA was looking into the possibility that confidential agency information had been leaked. Before long, though, the investigation blossomed into a full-blown campaign to hush critics of the FDA's medical review process. The agency used spy software to monitor workers' work and home computers.

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According to the Times, "The software tracked their keystrokes, intercepted their personal e-mails, copied the documents on their personal thumb drives and even followed their messages line by line as they were being drafted...."

The FDA's cover was blown when a private document-handling contractor mistakenly posted the secret files on a public website. The Times says its reporters were able to view accounts of the scientists' communications "day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour."

The chief complaint among disgruntled scientists? The approval of medical imaging devices for mammograms and colonoscopies that the scientists say exposed patients to unsafe levels of radiation. Scientists blamed "faulty review procedures" at the agency. 

And they weren't wrong to worry.

After workers aired their complaints, the Office of Special Counsel looked into the scientists' medical claims and declared the need for a full investigation into what it called "a substantial and specific danger to public safety." 

By 2011, four of the scientists had been let go from the FDA. Later, they learned of the FDA surveillance and filed a lawsuit. At the time, the scientists believed that only a few dozen e-mails had been intercepted; the depth of the surveillance hadn't yet come to light.

The Times reports that federal agencies are legally allowed to monitor their employees' computer use, but the FDA may have stretched its reach too far by analyzing information that is specifically protected under the law, namely whistleblower complaints to Congress, workplace grievances, and attorney-client communications.

Members of Congress were angry to learn of the interception. 

"It is absolutely unacceptable for the FDA to be spying on employees who reach out to members of Congress to expose abuses or wrongdoing in governmental agencies," Representative Chris Van Hollen told the San Francisco Gate. 

What do you think? How much discretion should governmental agencies have in monitoring the computers of their employees?

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