Grassley, Issa call for review of federal policies for using personal email

Tuesday - 3/6/2012, 2:34pm EST

Two senior Republican lawmakers want the Office of Management and Budget to assess agency guidelines for monitoring employees' personal email accounts.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) wrote to acting OMB Director Jeff Zients yesterday detailing seven questions they would like to be included in the analysis.

The request comes on the heels of a lawsuit by six former employees of the Food and Drug Administration, who allege the agency looked at their personal email after they raised concerns about the approval process of medical devices. The Office of Special Counsel is investigating the claims of retaliation and whether the FDA may have obtained access to personal email by intercepting passwords and searching archived messages.

"Our investigation of FDA's surveillance of whistleblowers has given rise to a broader question about the policies and practices for electronic surveillance at other federal agencies," the lawmakers wrote. "In the interest of evaluating whether those policies and practices are consistent with the guidance contained in the Office of Legal Counsel's 2009 opinion and recent court decisions, we request OMB's assistance in collecting information from all federal agencies about their respective email monitoring practices."

Specifically, the lawmakers want to know:

  • Whether the agency has an official policy for monitoring employee email.

  • Whether the policy allows for de minimis personal use of government computers to access personal email.

  • Whether the policy defines protected disclosures to OSC and/or Congress to be official, authorized use of government computers or devices, and if not, why?

  • A description of any such policy, including whether and to what extent the agency distinguishes personal emails and official emails.

  • Whether agencies perform authorized monitoring in such a way as to collect the usernames and passwords to personal accounts that may be accessed by employees on government computers, and if so, what safeguards prevent the use of that information to monitor communications that do not occur on government computers or devices.

  • The titles of officials who are authorized to order or conduct surveillance.

  • Statistics sufficient to show how frequently agencies conduct surveillance and use the information as a basis for an adverse personnel action.

An OMB spokeswoman said the agency is reviewing the letter.

"As a general matter, the Obama administration strongly supports whistleblower protections and has sought to deliver a more open and transparent government to make it more accountable to the American people," the spokeswoman said.

Grassley and Issa did not put a deadline on when the report would be due.

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