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    Update: FDA lawyers authorized spying on agency’s employees, senator says

    To recap: In January, the Washington Post reported that employees at the Food and Drug Administration were suing the agency over the privacy of their personal e-mail: “The surveillance — detailed in e-mails and memos unearthed by six of the scientists and doctors [...] took place over two years as the plaintiffs accessed their personal Gmail accounts from government computers. Information garnered this way eventually contributed to the harassment or dismissal of all six of the FDA employees, the suit alleges.” Then, the Post reported that the FDA admitted it accessed employees’ personal e-mail, and Congress and the Office of Special Counsel were investigating the issue. Last month, the Post reported that the Obama administration warned federal agencies about monitoring employees’ e-mail. The administration warned federal agencies “that monitoring their employees’ personal e-mail communications could violate the law if the intent is to retaliate against whistleblowers.”

    Recently, the New York Times reported that the FDA’s electronic surveillance program was bigger than previously disclosed: “What began as a narrow investigation into the possible leaking of confidential agency information by five scientists quickly grew in mid-2010 into a much broader campaign to counter outside critics of the agency’s medical review process, according to the cache of more than 80,000 pages of computer documents generated by the surveillance effort.”

    Now, the Washington Post reports that Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has written to the FDA saying that the spying was “explicitly authorized, in writing” by the FDA’s top legal office. The authorization of “wide-ranging surveillance of a group of the agency’s scientists” by the chief counsel’s office at the FDA is the “first indication that the effort was sanctioned at the highest levels,” the Post reports.

    “The FDA’s actions represent serious impediments to the right of agency employees to make protected disclosures about waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, or public safety,” wrote Grassley, who demanded that the agency release a copy of the memo authorizing the surveillance and the name of the FDA official who requested it.

    FDA spokeswoman Erica Jefferson said that the agency is looking into the matter. She said that the surveillance was limited in scope and reiterated that it was relegated to government computers. “We did not impede or interfere with any employee communication to Congress, their staff, media or federal investigators,” she said. [...]

    The FDA acknowledged Friday that targeted surveillance of five employees began in mid-2010, but it said that was not ongoing today, according to a letter sent to Grassley by Jeanne Ireland, the agency’s assistant commissioner for litigation. The FDA said Monday that the computer surveillance was limited to five employees. But an internal document shows that the agency targeted at least seven employees beginning in 2010.

     Read the full story to learn more.

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