FDA caught spying on e-mails of its own scientists in huge surveillance operation
(NaturalNews) If you need any measure of just how statist and paranoid our Leviathan government has become, look no further than recent revelations that one of its own agencies has been caught spying on some of its own employees, just because they had differences of opinion regarding its operation.
The New York Times said previously undisclosed documents revealed recently indicate the Food and Drug Administration had conducted a "wide-ranging surveillance operation" against a group of disgruntled FDA scientists who had privately sent thousands of emails to Congress, attorneys, labor officials, journalists and, on occasion, even President Obama.
The report said initially the FDA had launched a narrow investigation into possible leaks of confidential agency data by five scientists, but that its scope grew quickly in mid-2010 into a far broader effort aimed at countering outside critics of the agency's medical review process, as a cache of some 80,000 pages of computer documents indicated.
FDA officials who ordered the surveillance operation were seeking to squash what one memo called the "collaboration" of agency opponents comprised of 21 people, including FDA employees, congressional officials, outside medical researchers and journalists presumed to be working in unison to produce "defamatory" information about the agency.
A 'specific danger to public safety'
As expected, agency officials defended the massive spying effort, using the excuse that agency computer monitoring was limited to just the five scientists who the FDA believed were leaking confidential information about the design and safety of some medical devices. Agency officials admitted the goal of the surveillance was to track the scientists' communications, but they said the goal was never to impede those communications - only to see if the scientists were improperly sharing information.
Using so-called spy software that was designed to help employees monitor workers, the FDA managed to capture screen images from the government laptops of the scientists as they used them at work or at home.
The software tracked keystrokes, intercepted personal emails, copied documents on personal thumb drives and followed messages line by line as they were being composed, according to the cache of documents.
The large-scale surveillance operation stemmed from a long-standing and bitter dispute between FDA scientists and their supervisors regarding the former's claims the agency's faulty review processes have led to approval of medical imaging devices for mammograms and colonoscopies, which exposed patients to dangerous radiation levels, the Times reported.
It turns out that other government agencies believed the scientists.
According to the trove of documents, the Office of Special Counsel found in May 2012 that the scientists' medical claims were legitimate enough to warrant a full investigation into what the office called "a substantial and specific danger to public safety."
The captured documents, which included private correspondence to at least six congressional offices and oversight committees, copies of legal filings and grievances, along with personal emails - were inadvertently posted on a public Web site by a private document-handling contractor who works for the FDA. The Times said it "reviewed the records and their day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour accounting of the scientists' communications."
Did FDA cross a legal line - or three?
The scientists discovered last year that perhaps a few dozen of their emails had been nabbed by the FDA, a finding that led to their filing suit over the issue in September, following the dismissal of four of the scientists and a report disclosing the monitoring by The Washington Post in January.
That said, the immense scope of the spying operation and how far it reached had not yet been known, not even to some of the operation's targets.
FDA officials said by monitoring the five scientists' communications, their emails "were collected without regard to the identity of the individuals with whom the user may have been corresponding," according an agency memo.
While it went on to describe the congressional officials and other "actors" as collaborating with the scientists in their effort to disclose the faulty processes, FDA officials said those outside the agency were never targets of the surveillance, though they were still suspected of receiving private agency information.
Federal agencies generally have the right to monitor their employees' communications, but there are specific laws guiding interception of certain confidential information such as attorney-client communications, whistleblower complaints to members of Congress or their panels and workplace grievances filed with government watchdogs.
Even the Obama administration got nervous about the breadth of the FDA spying operation. In June the White House Office of Management and Budget sent out a government-wide memo reminding agencies it was permissible to monitor employee communications, but such monitoring could not, under the law, be used to intimidate whistleblowers.
Monitoring must be done in ways that "do not interfere with or chill employees' use of appropriate channels to disclose wrongdoing," said the memo, as quoted by the Times.
Needless to say, the FDA operation appears to have violated at least some of these laws. We'll see if heads roll or if hands merely get slapped. Or less.