The federal government tradition of spying on its workers goes back to at least 1969 when President Nixon’s national security adviser Henry Kissinger wiretapped his protégé Mort Halperin, who he wrongly suspected of leaking top secret information to the press. Although Kissinger eventually apologized, since then national security agencies have become steadily more aggressive in monitoring employee communications, and the zeal to control federal workers’ extracurricular activities has spread to regulatory agencies.
Most recently the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the safety and efficacy of food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and medical devices, set up a home grown surveillance operation of several staff scientists suspected of injudicious dissemination of proprietary documents.
During 2010, decision makers at the agency's Center for Devices and Radiological Health “responsible for protecting and promoting public health” secretly purchased off the shelf software for intercepting computer activity and surreptitiously installed it on the scientists' FDA-owned personal laptops.
Several of the targeted scientists were fired or retaliated against during the course of the monitoring operation, and in January they filed a lawsuit against the agency.
Ironically, the CDRH mission statement boasts, “Our staff is our most critical resource. We value individual excellence [and] teamwork,” and touts values of transparency, accountability, honesty and integrity (“Our actions adhere to the highest ethical standards and the law.)
After documents gleaned from the surveillance operation were inadvertently posted on a public Web site and discovered by one of its targets, The New York Times reported on a cache of 80,000 pages of e-mails and other communications between and among the “actors,” the regulatory agency suspected of participating with “ancillary actors” to expose complaints regarding the FDA review process.
The scientists, in addition to their mandate of “providing industry with predictable, consistent, transparent, and efficient regulatory pathways” were concerned that certain regulated devises used in colonoscopies and mammograms were emitting unsafe levels of radiation and were in contact with Congressional oversight staff and, also, at least one nongovernmental oversight organization dedicated to accountable, open, and ethical federal government.
When contacted by Times reporters Eric Lichtblau and Scott Shane, FDA officials defended the operation, claiming “it was never intended to impede communications, but only to determine whether information was being improperly shared.” Imagine if they put such effort into medical device oversight.
A recent review by the federal Office of Special Counsel found that the scientists’ medical claims warranted a full public safety investigation.
Bonnie Goldstein is on Twitter @KickedByAnAngel