In a surveillance operation of its scientists and their private e-mails, the agency sought to quell criticism.
WASHINGTON - A wide-ranging surveillance operation by the Food and Drug Administration against a group of its own scientists utilized an enemies list of sorts as it secretly captured thousands of e-mails that the disgruntled scientists sent privately to members of Congress, lawyers, labor officials, journalists and even President Obama, previously undisclosed records show.
What began as a narrow investigation into the possible leaking of confidential agency information by five scientists quickly grew in mid-2010 into a much broader campaign to counter outside critics of the agency's medical review process, according to the cache of more than 80,000 pages of computer documents generated by the surveillance effort.
Moving to quell what one memo called the "collaboration" of FDA opponents, the surveillance operation identified 21 employees, congressional officials, outside medical researchers and journalists thought to be working together to put out "defamatory" information about the agency.
The agency, using so-called spy software designed to monitor workers, captured screen images from the government laptops of the five scientists as they were being used at work or at home. The software tracked their 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, the documents show.
Dispute over medical device
The extraordinary effort grew out of a years-long dispute between the scientists and their bosses over the scientists' claims that faulty review procedures had led to the approval of medical imaging devices for mammograms and colonoscopies that exposed patients to dangerous levels of radiation.
A confidential review in May by the Office of Special Counsel, which deals with the grievances of government workers, found the scientists' claims were valid enough to warrant a full investigation.
The documents captured in the surveillance effort -- including confidential letters to at least a half-dozen congressional offices and oversight committees, drafts of legal filings and grievances, and personal e-mails -- were posted on a public website, apparently by mistake, by a private document-handling contractor that works for the FDA.
Congressional staff members who were regarded as sympathetic to the scientists were then cataloged by name in 66 directories. Drafts and final copies of letters to Obama about the scientists' safety concerns were also included.
'Everything is out there'
Last year, the scientists sued after finding out that a few dozen of their e-mails had been intercepted by the agency. But the scope of the surveillance, its broad range of targets and the volume of information that it generated were not previously known, even to some of the targets. The FDA defended the operation, saying it was "consistent with FDA policy."
While federal agencies have broad discretion to monitor their employees' computer use, the FDA program may have crossed legal lines by grabbing and analyzing confidential information that is specifically protected under the law. White House officials were so alarmed to learn of the operation that they sent a government-wide memo last month stressing that while the internal monitoring of employee communications was allowed, it could not be used to intimidate whistle-blowers.
The posting of the documents was discovered inadvertently by one of the researchers whose e-mails were monitored. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing," said the researcher, who did not want to be identified. "I thought, 'Oh my God, everything is out there. It's all about us.' It was just outrageous."