WASHINGTON – Amid revelations of government surveillance, the Food and Drug Administration found itself in front of a House committee Wednesday dealing with allegations of unreasonable computer monitoring of whistleblowing FDA employees.
The Republicans on the Oversight and Government Reform panel focused on the tactics used to monitor the computers of the FDA workers rather than on the leak of information itself. There is no expectation of privacy for government employees, said Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., but targeted surveillance is not appropriate.
“We depend on a skilled and motivated workforce who believes, as they should,” he said, “that they are not working for big brother.”
The FDA’s specific monitoring of these whistleblowers began after an incident in 2010 when information was leaked to The New York Times regarding radiation risks posed by a certain type of CT scanner machine. In 2012, one of the five scientists involved found a trove of documents on he and his fellow whistleblowers available online.
Subsequently, the FDA admitted to frequent monitoring of the computer screens and emails of the employees in question. The surveillance documents were released online accidentally by the private firm hired to conduct the monitoring.
The FDA maintains that the surveillance was not unreasonable and was designed to make sure no legally protected, confidential information or trade secrets were revealed to the public. FDA Chief Operating Officer Walter Harris testified that agency personnel are regularly advised that they have no expectation of privacy.
“Unauthorized disclosures of information not only violate federal law and regulations and undermine the integrity of FDA programs, they also can result in civil suits against the FDA,” Harris said, “so it is critically important… for the FDA to appropriately investigate any suspected incidents of unauthorized disclosure.”
According to a report requested by Grassley and Issa and conducted by Republican committee staff members, Dr. Robert Smith and several FDA co-workers filed suit in federal court alleging that the surveillance information was used “to harass or dismiss at least six current and former FDA employees.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a longtime advocate for whistleblower protection, testified against the FDA, contradicting the claim that the targeted monitoring was appropriate. Grassley was especially incensed because emails between the FDA employees and Grassley’s aides were allegedly included in the surveillance.
“Whistleblowers are about as welcome in bureaucracy as skunks at a picnic,” Grassley said.
Harris responded to Grassley’s indignation about the surveillance, including of some of his Senate aides, by saying the monitoring was “not designed to capture correspondence with any particular group, including Congress.”
He said that the agency has already taken steps to better regulate potential monitoring of employees, including a legal review board to approve targeted computer surveillance, better security for the private data collected and time limits on monitoring.
Angela Canterbury, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, doubted the agency’s ability to truly protect the rights of its whistleblowers.
“Can this surveillance be done in balance with rights?” she asked rhetorically.