WASHINGTON — A wide-ranging surveillance operation by the Food and Drug Administration against a group of its own scientists used an enemies list of sorts as it secretly captured thousands of e-mails that the disgruntled scientists sent privately to members of Congress, lawyers, labor officials, journalists and even President Obama, previously undisclosed records show.
A list names three of the 21 people said to be collaborating in criticism of the F.D.A., including employees and outside contacts. 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.
Moving to quell what one memorandum called the “collaboration” of the F.D.A.’s opponents, the surveillance operation 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 F.D.A. placed spy software on the laptops of scientists suspected of whistleblowing activities that enabled the agency to intercept personal e-mails and monitor scientists’ messages even as they were typing them. Some of these scientists were in dissent with the agency over the safety and efficacy of medical devices that the scientists felt could be expose patients to dangerous levels of radiation. The F.D.A. disagreed and implemented the spy program on its own to ferret out any scientists found to be leaking information about the devices. Some of the intercepted messages were to members of Congress and President Obama.
The Office of Special Counsel found enough evidence to determine that the safety of imaging devices used for colonoscopies and mammograms warranted further investigation. A vast online collection of documents intercepted from the scientists’ computers were mistakenly placed online, ironically exposing secrets and proprietary information that the F.D.A. was trying to protect. Congressional staff members who were thought to be sympathetic to the scientists had their own files catalogued in 66 huge directories of the information gleaned from private e-mails.
After the F.D.A. failed to get the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services to file criminal charges against the whistleblowing scientists, the agency decided to begin the surveillance program. The inspector general had found that nothing illegal had occurred and that matters of public safety can legally be reported.
One of the scientists accidentally discovered the vast database of collected information on him and many of his colleagues during a Google search of his name.