By John McQuaid
July 15, 2012
There are a lot of lessons in this New York Times story about ill-starred FDA spying on its own whistleblowing employees. The simplest one is: don’t conduct a spurious, invasive leak investigation and then post the whole thing on the Internet.
Because that appears to be exactly what led to the Times’s expose of the details of the FDA’s fishing expedition:
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 Web site, apparently by mistake, by a private document-handling contractor that works for the F.D.A. The New York Times reviewed the records and their day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour accounting of the scientists’ communications.
…The posting of the documents was discovered inadvertently by one of the researchers whose e-mails were monitored. The researcher did Google searches for scientists involved in the case to check for negative publicity that might hinder chances of finding work. Within a few minutes, the researcher stumbled upon the database.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said the researcher, who did not want to be identified because of pending job applications. “I thought: ‘Oh my God, everything is out there. It’s all about us.’ It was just outrageous.”
So the FDA undertakes a super-secret investigation that vacuums up, in the manner of Lisbeth Salander, gobs of information off the computers and email accounts of FDA employees, including their contacts with journalists and congressional staffers, who are all seen as participating in a conspiracy to expose proprietary information about medical scanners. Then, thanks to a private contractor (whom the Times mysteriously does not name) it all ends up online. A chance Google search, not Anonymous or WikiLeaks, is the facilitator here. Not just embarrassing, damaging: instead of protecting proprietary information, the FDA may have exposed it.
These ironies would be delicious were the investigation not such an arbitrary abuse of power by the federal bureaucracy, one whose authors remain unknown. Whistleblowers need to be able to communicate problems to journalists, Congress and the public; according to the story the employees subjected to the probe – several of them who have departed the agency – were right on the substance of their warnings.