FDA Surveillance and Suppression of Scientists

According to a recent New York Times article, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted an “extraordinary surveillance effort” on its own scientists following “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.” The FDA’s Orwellian surveillance program employed spyware that “tracked [the scientists’] 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,” which was all designed “to counter outside critics of the agency’s medical review process.” In contrast to the FDA’s pretextual justification that it was investigating a leak of confidential information, the FDA’s own documents reveal that the FDA spy program included surveillance of private information and specifically targeted confidential and legally protected disclosures to Congress and oversight agencies concerning public health and safety concerns.

According to a Democracy Now interview with the FDA scientists’ attorney, Stephen Kohn of Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto, LLP, the spy program became apparent when an FDA contractor uploaded 80,000 documents onto the internet, either by accident or in an effort “to destroy the reputation of these whistleblowers.” As recognized by Attorney Kohn, “we now have a glimpse into what domestic surveillance of whistleblowers looks like in this country with the modern technological developments,” And this glimpse reveals “the insidious nature of electronic surveillance, because once they had the first whistleblower,” the FDA was “able to learn who he was talking to and who was supportive of what he was trying to change,” to “identify all the other whistleblowers and then people who endorsed them” and to create an enemies list which included a congressman and a congressional staff member. The 80,000 documents revealed that the FDA was “interested in suppressing dissent and learning who was blowing the whistle, what they were blowing the whistle on, and who supported them.”

In Congress, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, a legislative trailblazer of whistleblower rights, is leading the charge against the FDA’s domestic surveillance program. During his recent televised address before Congress, Senator Grassley, resolutely declared, “I will continue to press the FDA to open every window and every door. Eventually enough sunlight on this agency will cleanse it. FDA gets paid to protect the public, not to keep us in the dark. Secret monitoring programs, spying on Congress, and retaliating against whistleblowers--this is a sad commentary on the state of affairs at the FDA.” 

To take action against whistleblower surveillance, or to learn more about the subject, visit the Halt Whistleblower Surveillance campaign page of the National Whistleblowers Center.

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