The Magazine


Apr 14, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 30 • By TOD LINDBERG
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For three years now, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been running an undercover operation called "Innocent Images" that targets people who use computers to traffic in child pornography -- and the results have been oddly reassuring. Innocent Images has nabbed over 70 people so far, from time to time generating headlines about the arrest of a truly vile perpetrator. But given the explosive growth in online services and Internet use -- some put the number of users at 20 to 30 million -- the number seems very small. And that, in turn, seems to vindicate those who argue that the problem of online smut has been overstated.

Kiddie porn is more than just smut. Its very existence has been deemed a crime by Congress; its possession and dissemination are both point-blank illegal. It is a crime to distribute it -- an act defined by law as the exchange of even a single image, regardless of whether money is involved -- and to own it. A first offense can draw a maximum sentence of 15 years; a second offense, 30. The law allows the justice system to come down with full force on those who find it stimulating to look at pictures of children having sex with other children, performing sex acts on adults, engaged in sex acts with animals, depicted in scenes of bondage and sadomasochism, and the like. The material in question is so disturbing that even such First Amendment stalwarts as officials of the American Civil Liberties Union routinely call for vigorous prosecution of traffickers in kiddie porn.

At congressional hearings and elsewhere, FBI officials proudly recount their efforts to bring kiddie-porn perpetrators to justice through Innocent Images. From the start of Innocent Images in 1994 through mid-March of this year, the bureau has had 183 search warrants executed that have led to 88 arrests and over 70 convictions.

But that's not the real story of Innocent Images. In truth, the FBI has nothing to brag about. Rather, it should be hanging its head in shame, because its conduct in the Innocent Images investigation has been nothing short of a scandal, a gross dereliction of duty deserving of congressional hearings and mass firings. For it turns out the FBI has caught a lot more than 70 kiddie-porn traffickers in its net, and is allowing them to slip through. According to congressional and other sources, FBI personnel have acknowledged that, in fact, the bureau has so far compiled a database of 4, 000 names from Innocent Images. In every one of these 4,000 cases, the bureau has solid evidence of distribution of child pornography online.

Data from the U.S. Customs Service offer a telling contrast. Customs, too, runs undercover kiddie-porn investigations involving online services and the Internet because it has authority to investigate the use of any foreign-made products for illegal purposes. Since October 1, 1996, Customs has managed 55 convictions -- more than 75 percent of the FBI's total in less than a third of the time.

What are the nation's top law enforcers -- the FBI itself, the Justice Department in Washington, the 94 U.S. Attorney's offices throughout the country -- doing about these 4,000 people, each of whom, if convicted, would almost certainly face serious prison time? Well, nothing much -- and on purpose.

Here's how Innocent Images works, according to sources present at a closed- door briefing the FBI gave congressional staff on February 13. An agent goes online via a service provider (America Online especially) and seeks out "chat rooms" where kiddie porn appears to be a topic of discussion. The agent makes known an interest in the subject and asks for others with similar interests to send electronic files of images to an e-mail address the agent is using as a drop box. Then it's just a matter of checking the e-mail to see what comes in and from whom. (FBI personnel did exactly this at the February briefing, showing congressional staff a couple of new kiddie-porn pictures that had just been received as part of Innocent Images at the FBI's electronic mailbox. ) Upon receipt of an image, which comes with the "username" of the person sending it, the FBI presents a subpoena to America Online seeking the real name and address of the sender. "AOL keeps records of credit card numbers, names and addresses," according to the written notes of a source who attended the briefing. "The FBI then only has to issue subpoenas for records." Thus, a database is born. To take the matter farther, as in the case of those actually prosecuted, investigators can use the information they have gathered thus far to seek a search warrant. When they get it, they can search the suspect's home and seize the computer to conduct a forensic examination of its contents.