The FDA Demonstrates What “Targeting” Does

“They think they can be the Gestapo and do anything they want.” — Chuck Grassley, on learning his staffer’s emails had been surveilled by the FDA

It is utterly predictable that members of Congress only get concerned about heavy-handed surveillance when they get sucked up in the surveillance. And so it is that Chuck Grassley, who voted for the FISA Amendments Act, and Chris Van Hollen, who didn’t, are outraged that their offices have been dragged into the FDA’s invasive surveillance used to conduct a leak investigation.

The surveillance started in response to a belief that FDA scientists, upset that their concerns about the safety of medical diagnostic equipment had been overridden, leaked classified proprietary information to the NYT. But after targeting just 5 scientists suspected of the leak, the FDA developed profiles on 21 people thought to be conspiring against the agency.

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.

Mind you, Grassley and Van Hollen’s aides (and Van Hollen himself) were not themselves the targets of the leak investigation. The scientists were the targets. But since they were communicating with the scientists, their communication–some of it protected by law–were collected, “incidentally.” And having convinced themselves a leak had happened and a conspiracy was afoot, the FDA continued its collection program, even after the FDA’s Inspector General determined no law was broken and the Special Counsel started investigating the retaliation against the scientists.

Precisely the same thing can happen under FAA in the name of national security: people are targeted based on a suspicion, and those they communicate with, even for legitimate purposes, get sucked into the trap. That is, this is precisely the problem with the FAA, which Grassley, at least, is prepared to reup for another 4 years.

And precisely the same thing has and continues to happen as agencies put their concerns about classification ahead of whistleblower concerns. This story is not so different from what happened to Thomas Drake, with members of Congress targeted, whistleblowers punished, and the underlying complaint ignored.

On that point, the NYT leaves two questions left unanswered in their important article on the FDA surveillance: it doesn’t make clear whether the medical devices–mammogram and colonoscopy imaging devices–are still out there on the market, exposing Americans to too much radiation.

And while the NYT does include the FDA’s two different attempts to justify this surveillance, it doesn’t tell us where are the people who put the FDA’s institutional interests above the safety of the American people.

We are all already at risk of this kind of surveillance given the way FAA is structured. This instance, because it’s only about General Electric’s security rather than “national security,” might actually provide an opportunity to talk about how inappropriate this kind of surveillance is, both in other workplaces, and when our government targets us in the name of national security.

But it probably won’t happen.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

10 replies
  1. tinao says:

    No it is not spam, though I remember eat the stuff as a kid. The protective layers here I’m sure mean well, but close people off from direct commenting. Too bad a person can’t comment freely with out being accused of being too something. I thought we were all in this together.

  2. Kay Serasera says:

    Regarding one of the unanswered questions: The Times story mentions an earlier Times piece by Gardiner Harris, two years ago, that brought the internal conflict at FDA to a boil. That piece [at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/29/health/policy/29fda.html?pagewanted=all ] indicates that the GE scanning device that pushed the scientists to finally go public was indeed approved by the FDA — after FDA fired the scientists. As context, at that time, NYT was running an excellent, well-documented, year-long series by Walt Bogdanich on the hazards of medical radiation. That series and related articles, including reports on FDA and industry responses, are indexed at http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/us/series/radiation_boom/index.html . Also, just last month, NYT ran two stories on CT scans [indexed at http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/test/ct-scan/news-and-features.html ] which basically say that (1) more imaging than ever is being done and (2) it’s killing kids. So my impression is that risky equipment and methods are still in wide use.

  3. tinao says:

    I did read the post PJ Evans. As usual I found it a very informative piece, but coming from my area of practice I was concerned for the victims of the over exposure to radiation and was providing information on what can be done to counter that. My next comment came from a place that has been simmering in me for a while. When information outlets over look the cause of people revolting against companies/indusrties that are putting their health and lives at risk, I see connections in the arrogance.

  4. tinao says:

    But to show my goodwill JP…the next time you or one of yours has to go to the hospital, don’t just google the circumstance. Also google the nurse to patient ratio to understand what kind of care you will be receiving. Nurses are the eyes and ears for your doctor.

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