NY Times: FDA Officials Spied On Its Own Scientists

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.”




  1. Joyce Banovz says

    Well, a whistle blower should not use the internet to report any problems. We all know that the internet is in public view at all times. As far as any other sensitive material, there should not be any private information on it either . The tax payer’s computers are and should be used only for the job at hand. Please do what we pay you to do. Thanks

  2. Carolyn S says

    Although the FDA officials went a little too far, I work for CDC and there are many procedures in place there to restrict agency scientists from speaking to the press or communicating with elected officials. The atmosphere is much more repressive than it might seem from the outside. You are best off using a personal email address to communicate with a reporter or a congressional staff person or any other “off limits” type of correspondent.

  3. Statin Island says

    Some of the emails “captured” were sent via reviewers’ gmail accounts, although I assume mailed from their FDA offices. Beyond that, a significant number of FDA scientists have been reporting a repressive environment for several years (at least since PDUFA). Even Janet Woodock described a “sweatshop environment” for NDA reviewers. The NYT has also published some of internal emails of the investigators. Pretty chilling stuff. It is also possible to find the letter that whistleblowers sent to John Podesta, who was directing the Obama transition team, essentially begging the new administration to look into the madhouse that some FDA units had become.

  4. Carolyn S says

    At least at CDC, you can’t access any outside email address, like gmail, from your office computer because they are all blocked. You would have to use an outside computer. But I think the FDA installed monitoring softrware on the scientists’ government-issued laptops. So you woud also need to use a personal computer, not a government computer. It is indeed all very chilling.

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