by J.D. Heyes
July 17, 2012
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
"reviewed the records and their
day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour accounting of the scientists'
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
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
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
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
administration got nervous about the breadth of the FDA
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
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...