I’ll go a little further and say the coverage of this matter has been pretty paltry. The basics are this: in an effort to determine the source of leaked confidential information, staff at the Food and Drug Administration authorized the tracking of electronic communications of the agency scientists suspected of the leaks. This surveillance captured at least 80,000 documents, including correspondence with Congressional staff. It seems that the scientists, along with others, were looking to be whistleblowers over what they felt are faulty review processes for certain medical devices. The Office of Special Counsel felt the concerns warranted further investigation.
As one might expect when the biomedical agencies are involved, Senator Charles Grassley is on the case. He has been writing to the FDA Commissioner, and apparently has evidence that the surveillance was authorized from senior legal staff at the FDA.
This is a huge deal, what would appear to be a case of acting excessively against whistleblowers. The surveillance went further than the five scientists suspected of the leaks, and if it weren’t for the unintentional disclosure by an FDA contractor, the documents wouldn’t have emerged when they did.
Since the agency in question is a science agency, and the employees in question were scientists, should that make this a bigger deal? A review of the Health and Human Services Department’s scientific integrity principles doesn’t seem to cover this kind of a scenario. But there are federal laws intended to protect whistleblowers, and it’s not clear to me how the surveillance might have been any different if it were five non-scientist employees suspected of similar activity.
That said, the relative lack of furor of this extensive surveillance, with software likely available to other government agencies, is disappointing – whether or not you’re talking about the ‘war on science’ crowd.