Doctors and scientists working for the Food and Drug Administration became targets of surveillance and some lost their jobs after blowing the whistle on the agency’s approval of medical devices that they believed were not safe for public use.
The seven professionals were in communication with President Obama, members of Congress, federal law enforcement officials and journalists. Obama, who has been waging a war against whistle-blowers, appears not to have commented on the scandal yet. But it is difficult to imagine the president disapproving of experts leaking sensitive information in the interest of public safety, regarding matters that are not directly political.
The FDA monitored the scientists’ computers at work and home, copying emails and data on thumb drives, and watching messages typed line by line as they were composed. And it did so cheaply. The spyware, sold by SpectorSoft, costs $100 for a single computer and can be placed on 25 machines for less than $3,000. “Monitor everything they do,” SpectorSoft’s website says. “Catch them red-handed by receiving instant alerts when keywords or phrases are typed or are contained in an email, chat, instant message or website.”
The FDA defended its methods, saying it monitored only work computers, did not focus on members of Congress or their staffs and at no time attempted to interfere with scientists’ communications.
The surveillance was discovered when one of the scientists browsed the Internet for information on himself while applying for a job. The scientist discovered that the FDA had uploaded at least 80,000 documents containing sensitive information gathered during the course of spying.
In an interview with “Democracy Now!” Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center and the attorney representing the scientists, said the pretext of leaks is being used to justify large-scale surveillance. He explains that documents pertaining to the program show that the FDA targeted whistle-blowers who did not have access to the “so-called trade secret information.” Then the agency targeted messages sent to Congress, Kohn said, even though the law protects the confidentiality of federal employees’ safety appeals to the Office of Special Counsel, which means the FDA broke the law by violating confidentiality rights.
Kohn went on to describe the “insidious nature of domestic surveillance.” Once the agency identified the first whistle-blower, it was able to discover who he was talking to and create an “enemies list,” he said. And the list grew. One list had seven names. Another held 21. And Kohn believes there are more.
It takes courage to put one’s job on the line for the sake of others, especially in economic hard times. For risking and in some cases losing their livelihoods—at least for now—in pursuit of public safety, we honor the seven FDA whistle-blowers as our Truthdiggers of the Week.
—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly. Follow him on Twitter: @areedkelly.