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FDA spied on dissident doctors

17th July 2012

The US drug regulator gave top-level authorisation for secret surveillance of its staff, according to a recent investigation by members of Congress.

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According to congressional investigators, lawyers working for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the go-ahead for wide-ranging surveillance of a group of the agency’s scientists.

The news is the first indication that the surveillance of staff was ordered at the highest levels of the agency, which investigators say authorised it explicitly and in writing.

The affected group of FDA doctors were expressing concerns about the safety of medical devices. Some of them have since been dismissed.

The FDA was apparently concerned that they had disclosed con­fidential business information about several medical devices used to screen patients for colon cancer and breast cancer.

Republican Senator Charles Grassley said that the FDA's actions represented serious impediments to the right of agency employees to make protected disclosures about waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, or public safety.

He called on the FDA to release publicly a copy of the memo authorising the spying effort.

The FDA has said it is looking into the matter. According to spokeswoman Erica Jefferson, the surveillance was limited in scope and limited to government computers.

She denied that the FDA had interfered with any communication by its employees with members of Congress, journalists or federal investigators.

The FDA is believed to have secretly collected thousands of private emails that the employees sent each another, to members of Congress, journalists, lawyers and others.

While the agency's lawyers have said that the computer surveillance was limited to five employees, a leaked internal document suggests that the agency had been spying on at least seven of its employees since 2010.

According to a report in the Washington Post in January, the agency monitored personal email accounts accessed from government computers, took electronic snapshots of computer desktops and reviewed documents saved on hard drives.

Last weekend, the New York Times reported that the agency had created a database of 80,000 pages of documents collected from communications and the online activities of the doctors concerned.

The database was later posted online by an FDA contractor, apparently inadvertently. It included a document that listed possible future surveillance targets that included congressional staff members.

The scientists had apparently already prepared draft complaints to an independent federal agency which supports whistleblowers who expose government wrongdoing.

That agency, the Office of Special Counsel, is now investigating the FDA’s monitoring of its employees.

Its lawyers have warned federal agencies that monitoring their employees’ personal e-mail violates the law, if the intent of the surveillance is to seek retaliation against whistleblowers.

The OSC apparently has the full support of the White House, which has distributed her warning to all federal agencies and departments.

Grassley has been trying to track down exactly who authorised the surveillance, and has accused FDA officials of "stonewalling" in their responses.



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