The Food and Drug Administration's top lawyers are under fire from Congress for apparently explicitly authorizing, in writing, a program to conduct surveillance on agency scientists who expressed safety concerns about medical products.
In a growing controversy on Capitol Hill, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a letter Monday that his office received information that an FDA official asked the agency's general counsel's office to look into a program about monitoring email of employees, including emails sent to Grassley's and other congressional offices.
Grassley demanded that the FDA immediately provide him with the name of the official and the memo drafted by the general counsel, in a letter that not only takes the agency to task for the "massive spying campaign" but reminds the agency that interfering with a congressional inquiry is against the law. Grassley also wants the author of the memo available for an interview with his staff investigators.
"It is evident from the documents I have obtained that FDA did in fact target communications with Congress for monitoring and then took adverse personnel actions against FDA whistleblowers who were communicating with Congress," Grassley said. "FDA's misconduct cannot be ignored."
Grassley said he will be handing over these documents to the Department of Justice for further investigation into any wrongdoing, including possible violations of whistleblower protection statutes and the Stored Communications Act. He will also turn them over to the Office of Special Counsel and the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General.
Six FDA scientists and doctors filed a lawsuit against the FDA in U.S. District Court in Washington in January accusing the agency of surveillance over two years as the plaintiffs accessed their personal Gmail accounts from government computers, the Washington Post reported at the time their suit was filed.
The lawsuit alleges that information from those emails eventually contributed to the harassment or dismissal of all six of the FDA employees, the Post reported. All had worked in an office responsible for reviewing devices for cancer screening and other purposes.
Grassley wrote a letter asking questions about the program in January. He says now that the agency for the past six months has refused to provide any meaningful information in reply to the January letter, saying only that it was being worked on and that there was a 'good story' to tell regarding the spying on employees.
"It is simply not credible that FDA went to such great lengths over the course of two years to monitor employees personal email accounts, then spent six months crafting a reply to my questions about it, and yet still cannot identify who authorized the spying," Grassley's letter states.
The agency did not provide a document that detailed the program in a response to Grassley last week. But, Grassley calls it "even more astonishing" that the document was apparently posted inadvertently on a public internet site.
The New York Times found that document, along with about 80,000 pages of previously undisclosed and confidential communications the program captured between whistleblowers, their attorneys, Congress, and the OSC.
The surveillance operation moved to quell what one memorandum called the "collaboration" of the FDA's opponents, and identified 21 agency employees, congressional officials, outside medical researchers and journalists thought to be working together to put out negative and "defamatory" information about the agency, the story found.
An FDA spokesperson did not immediately return a call for comment.