Dorgan Accuses White House of Unethically Politicizing Safety Warnings From the FDA

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • David Sirota Newspaper columnist, radio host (AM760), bestselling author

At OpenLeft, we've been aggressively covering the crazy story of the Obama administration crushing drug importation legislation that President Obama campaigned on as a presidential candidate and supported as a U.S. Senator. Now, days after the administration colluded with the pharmaceutical industry to kill the measure, one Democratic senator is making an extremely serious accusation.

The Food and Drug Administration is supposed to be one of those science-based agencies somewhat removed from politics - specifically to protect the integrity of its declarations on health and safety issues. That's why this story from the Wall Street Journal is very problematic:

There are several sets of fingerprints in the Senate chamber where (drug importation) legislation died, including some from the White House, says Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND). "They did not support this," and worked with Democratic Senate leaders to kill it in order to move the larger bill forward, he said in an interview. The amendment failed in the Senate Tuesday evening...

Dorgan said he can't get answers from the administration about what's going on, though he called the White House and FDA prior to the vote.

Last week, he said he heard rumors that the FDA was going to send a letter objecting to drug importation on safety grounds, which he has said is a bogus reason. He said he called FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, who said she knew nothing about such a letter.

He said his timeline shows that a letter signed by Hamburg which questioned the safety of drug imports, was sent 24 hours later to a few senators who opposed importation. That piece of paper became a rallying cry for other senators who voted down Dorgan's amendment.

"I think the letter was prompted, probably drafted somewhere else," like "the White House" Dorgan said.

The White House has not responded to repeated calls and emails. The FDA did not immediately comment.

So Hamburg, who is supposed to be concerned only with science, first says she has no idea what Dorgan is talking about. Then, suddenly, 24 hours later, she's signed onto a headline-grabbing letter saying Dorgan's bill would threaten American consumers. Something smells here - something smells really bad.

Hamburg is an Obama appointee, so the FDA isn't fully removed from politics. However, its declarations about safety are supposed to be science-based - not political. And by this Wall Street Journal account, Dorgan is asserting that, in fact, it's declaration that imports are unsafe - a dishonest declaration that provides zero empirical scientific evidence - may have been written by political staffers in the White House.

If this is true, it's a genuine scandal. It's one thing for the White House to oppose a measure, make arguments against a measure on any grounds it wants. But if the White House political staff played ventriloquist for a science/safety declaration from the FDA, that's a huge problem.

We went through the Bush years - the years of Karl Rove politicizing science-based agencies and their declarations. In fact, this happened at the FDA and specifically on the drug importation issue, as Judd Legum and I reported in a cover story for The Nation. This was exactly the kind of thing Democrats and Obama railed on.

Now, we may have evidence that in order to protect drug industry profits, the Obama White House did exactly the same thing.