FDA whistleblowers victims of snooping by agency
This is remarkable - and a little frightening. The FDA was spying on some scientists who were raising a stink that some medical imaging devices were exposing people to too much radiation. They were criticizing the approval procedures of the FDA, which the agency didn't like, so the feds set up a sophisticated snooping operation that caught 80,000 pages of documents and emails.
And the problem for the agency is that the doctors were right. A review of the approval process found "that the scientists' medical claims were valid enough to warrant a full investigation into what it termed 'a substantial and specific danger to public safety.'"
Moving to quell what one memorandum called the "collaboration" of the F.D.A.'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.
F.D.A. 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.
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.
The agency, using so-called spy software designed to help employers monitor workers, captured screen images from the government laptops of the five scientists as they were being used at work or at home. 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 documents show.
The extraordinary surveillance effort grew out of a bitter dispute lasting years between the scientists and their bosses at the F.D.A. over the scientists' claims that faulty review procedures at the agency had led to the approval of medical imaging devices for mammograms and colonoscopies that exposed patients to dangerous levels of radiation.
This is a case where top bureaucrats didn't like being publicly criticized for having lax approval procedures so they carried out a spying operation on the whistleblowers that eventually ensnared people outside the agency as well.
Contained in the documents are emails to the White House informing President Obama of the results of the snooping. The fact is, the FDA may have broken the law:
While federal agencies have broad discretion to monitor their employees' computer use, the F.D.A. program may have crossed legal lines by grabbing and analyzing confidential information that is specifically protected under the law, including attorney-client communications, whistle-blower complaints to Congress and workplace grievances filed with the government.
Other administration officials were so concerned to learn of the F.D.A. operation that the White House Office of Management and Budget sent a governmentwide memo last month emphasizing that while the internal monitoring of employee communications was allowed, it could not be used under the law to intimidate whistle-blowers. Any monitoring must be done in ways that "do not interfere with or chill employees' use of appropriate channels to disclose wrongdoing," the memo said.
"Crossing legal lines" is a euphemism for violating the law. And if the White House knew of this wrongdoing -- and that OMB memo makes it appear that they did -- they are complicit in it.
But don't worry. Our intrepid attorney general will get on the case immediately -- as soon as he ferets out all the racists who are keeping black people from voting down south.