The Food and Drug Administration has been found to have launched a massive surveillance campaign targeting its own scientists for writing letters to journalists, members of Congress and President Obama. The scientists were expressing their concern over the FDA’s approval of medical imaging devices for colonoscopies and mammograms that could endanger patients with high levels of radiation. The covert spying operation led the agency to monitor the scientists’ computers at work and at home, copying emails and thumb drives and even monitoring individual messages line by line as they were being composed in real time. The agency also created an enemies list. We’re joined by the FDA whistleblowers’ attorney, Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center. “For the first time, we now have a glimpse into what domestic surveillance of whistleblowers looks like in this country with the modern technological developments,” Kohn says. “The agency [sought] to destroy the reputation of these whistleblowers forever.”
AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times has revealed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration conducted an extensive spying campaign against its own scientists. The spying began after the scientists warned the FDA had faultily approved medical imaging devices for colonoscopies and mammograms that endangered patients with high levels of radiation. The covert spying operation led the agency to monitor the scientists’ computers at work and at home, copying emails, thumb drives, and even monitoring individual messages, line by line, as they were being typed in real time. Messages monitored included emails to journalists, to members of Congress and even to President Obama himself. The agency also created an enemies list.
Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has urged U.S. law enforcement officials to investigate whether the FDA violated the law in its surveillance of employee email. In a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg sent Monday, Grassley wrote, quote, “Continued stonewalling and secrecy about the spying on these employees’ protected disclosures is unacceptable.”
The FDA has denied any wrongdoing. In response to a Democracy Now! request for comment Monday, the agency said, quote, “FDA did not monitor the employees’ use of non-government-owned computers at any time. Neither members of Congress nor their staffs were the focus of monitoring. At no point in time did FDA attempt to impede or delay any communication between these individuals and Congress. Employees have appropriate routes to voice their concerns without disclosing confidential information to the public, and FDA has policies in place to ensure employees are aware of their rights and options,” the FDA told us.
Well, to talk more about the implications of this case, we’re going to Washington, D.C., to speak with Stephen Kohn, the attorney for the FDA whistleblowers and executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, who has brought suit against the government.
Stephen Kohn, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you first explain what happened, how you found out this extensive monitoring was taking place, and who exactly you represent?
STEPHEN KOHN: OK. Well, I’m representing the seven FDA doctors and scientists who blew the whistle on serious health and safety violations on medical devices being approved by the FDA. One CT colonoscopy device that they exposed made it onto the market, 600 to 800 times the radiation dosage of similar devices that are more effective. I mean, you’re talking about a lot of political pressure, a lot of financial pressure, that’s just totally outrageous in the medical and FDA context.
AMY GOODMAN: And the corporation that owned these devices?
STEPHEN KOHN: Major corporations. This particular device and similar devices, General Electric. Now, what these scientists at—well, I’ll tell you how it was discovered, this large domestic surveillance operation. One of these scientists was applying for a job and just went on to Google to see what FDA was saying about him or her—we’re keeping this person’s identity confidential—and discovered that FDA had uploaded on Google thousands and thousands of pages—now, at least 80,000, I think may be even more. Essentially, their domestic surveillance program, a large piece of it, got uploaded on Google for everyone to see. And for the first time, we now have a glimpse into what domestic surveillance of whistleblowers looks like in this country with the modern technological developments.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what you found. How were these scientists monitored? Now, some of them were fired, right? They were pushed out.
STEPHEN KOHN: That’s correct. I mean, FDA’s statement that you read is ludicrous. They fired these people after they learned they were going to Congress and to federal law enforcement officials. They had specific targets of all of their contacts with members of Congress, specific targets of their contacts with law enforcement, as they tried to blow the whistle on these devices. Any statement of FDA that this was somehow benign or limited to leaks is absolutely false and proven by these documents.
But what’s incredible here is the United States government justifies going after whistleblowers through these leak investigations. We have lived through it in the national security context. We’ve seen it in many cases where the agencies go to the public and say, “Hey, it’s a leak of confidential information. It’s legitimate.” But what we’re able to see in this inside picture of domestic surveillance, it began with the pretext of a leak. But in the opening documents, they then targeted all communications between the whistleblowers, even if they had no access to the so-called trade secret information, which the majority did not. So they went after not just the one whistleblower who they thought may be the leaker, but six others who were just whistleblowers.
And then it just evolved. Then they learned they were going to Congress, so they had specific targets: congressional communications. Then, under federal law, all federal employees can file—confidentially—safety allegations with an organization known as the Office of Special Counsel. By statute, these communications are protected. Employees are given anonymity and confidentiality. It’s kind of like we see in many workplaces: “Contact this number or this office, and we guarantee you secrecy.” And guess what? FDA targeted those communications. They intercepted their confidential whistleblowing disclosures. So, who was violating the law? It was FDA, because they were violating the confidentiality rights. They were looking at these safety allegations before they were even filed with law enforcement. There were able to develop defenses.