FDA officials developed “a wide-ranging surveillance operation” against a group of its own “dissident” scientists, according to a news report by Eric Lichtblau and Scott Shane in the New York Times. The surveillance program secretly recorded thousands of emails the scientists sent to each other as well as to members of congress, journalists, and, the Times notes, “even President Obama.”
Although the Washington Post reported earlier this year that several FDA scientists were suing the agency because their emails had been read by the agency, the full extent of the program had been completely unknown. Now the Times reports that the surveillance effort was massive and possibly illegal. Although the government, like other employers, has the right to monitor activity on its own computers, the Times notes that “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.”
Adding insult to injury, the new information about the program only became available when a “private document-handling contractor” for the FDA inadvertently posted on the internet 80,000 pages of computer documents related to the investigation. (The documents were discovered when one of the scientists performed a Google search on his own name. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” the scientist told the Times.) The documents have subsequently been removed from public view.
The FDA officials initially asked the Health and Human Services inspector general to undertake a criminal investigation into possible leaks from the scientists, but the inspector general found no evidence of a crime and said that “‘matters of public safety’ can legally be released to the news media.”