The Food and Drug Administration monitored thousands of emails of its own scientists to track leaks of confidential agency information, including emails sent to President Barack Obama, the New York Times
The probe initially focused on five scientists suspected of leaking information but grew as a response to a “collaboration” of the agency’s opponents which a memo identified as 21 agency employees, congressional officials, medical researchers and journalists, according to the Times.
The FDA was eager to protect information about trade secrets submitted by drug and medical device manufacturers seeking approval for products, the Times reported.
The FDA admitted tracking the emails but only because they wanted to find out if information was being improperly shared, according to the Times. Letters the scientists sent to Obama about safety concerns were also included in the surveillance.
Documents captured in the surveillance effort were posted on a public website by contractor working for the FDA, the Times reported.
While they acknowledged that the surveillance tracked the communications that the scientists had with congressional officials, journalists and others, they said it was never intended to impede those communications, but only to determine whether information was being improperly shared.
"The agency had evidence suggesting that they might be responsible for the unauthorized disclosure of proprietary information," FDA spokeswoman Erica Jefferson said, according to Reuters. She said monitoring was limited to communications on government-owned computers.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa said that “the F.D.A. is discouraging whistle-blowers.”
Emails of former staff members of the Republican senator were cataloged in the database. Grassley told the Times that agency officials “have absolutely no business reading the private e-mails of their employees. They think they can be the Gestapo and do anything they want.”
Grassley added that "The FDA has a lot of explaining to do in the weeks ahead.”
"It is absolutely unacceptable for the FDA to be spying on employees who reach out to members of Congress to expose abuses or wrongdoing in government agencies," Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland told Reuters. Van Hollen is a member of the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives and was named in the documents as a target, according to the Times.
"The FDA should be focused on resolving these complaints rather than retaliating against its employees," Van Hollen added.
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