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Human Trafficking Evokes Outrage, Little Evidence

Soon after Bush took office, a network of anti-trafficking nonprofit agencies arose, spurred in part by an infusion of federal dollars.

HHS officials were determined to raise public awareness and encourage victims to come forward. For help, they turned to Ketchum in 2003.

Legal experts said they hadn't heard of hiring a public relations firm to fight a crime problem. Wagner, who took over HHS's anti-trafficking program in 2003, said that the strategy was "extremely unusual" but that creative measures were needed.

"The victims of this crime won't come forward. Law enforcement doesn't handle that very well, when they have to go out and find a crime," he said.

Ketchum, whose Washington lobbying arm is chaired by former U.S. Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), formed coalitions of community groups in two states and 19 cities, to search for and aid victims. The coalition effort was overseen by a subcontractor, Washington-based Capital City Partners, whose executives during the period of oversight have included the former heads of the Fund for a Conservative Majority and the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, in addition to the former editorial page editor of the conservative Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader newspaper.

Trying to Get the Number Right

Three years ago, the government downsized its estimate of trafficking victims, but even those numbers have not been borne out.

The effort to acquire a more precise number had begun at the Library of Congress and Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania, where graduate students on a CIA contract stayed up nights, using the Internet to find clippings from foreign newspapers.

Once again, the agency was using mainly news clips from foreign media to estimate the numbers of trafficking victims, along with reports from government agencies and anti-trafficking groups. The students at Mercyhurst, a school known for its intelligence studies program, were enlisted to help.

But their work was thought to be inconsistent, said officials at the Government Accountability Office, which criticized the government's trafficking numbers in a report last year.

A part-time researcher at the Library of Congress took over the project. "The numbers were totally unreliable," said David Osborne, head of research for the library's federal research division. "If it was reported that 15 women were trafficked from Romania into France, French media might pick it up and say 32 women and someone else would say 45."

A CIA analyst ran the research through a computer simulation program, said government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing the CIA's methods. It spat out estimates of destination countries for trafficking victims worldwide. The new number of victims trafficked into the United States: 14,500 to 17,500 each year.

The simulation is considered a valid way to measure probability if the underlying data are reliable. "It seems incredibly unlikely that this was a robust, sound analysis," said David Banks, a statistics professor at Duke University.

The CIA's new estimate, which first appeared in a 2004 State Department report, has been widely quoted, including by a senior Justice Department official at a media briefing this year. It's also posted on the HHS Web site.

The Justice Department's human trafficking task force in Washington has mounted an aggressive effort to find victims.

But at a meeting of the task force this year, then-coordinator Sharon Marcus-Kurn said that detectives had spent "umpteen hours of overtime" repeatedly interviewing women found in Korean- and Hispanic-owned brothels. "It's very difficult to find any underlying trafficking that is there," Marcus-Kurn told the group.

People trafficked into the United States have traditionally been the focus of the crackdown. In recent years, there has been increasing debate about whether the victim estimates should include U.S. citizens. For example, adult U.S. citizens forced into prostitution are also trafficking victims under federal law, but some say that such cases should be left to local police.

D.C.: A Trafficking Hub?

In a classroom at the D.C. police academy in January, President Bush appears on a screen at a mandatory training session in how to investigate and identify trafficking. The 55 officers who attended watch a slide show featuring testimonials from government officials and a clip from Bush's 2003 speech to the United Nations.

Sally Stoecker, lead researcher for Shared Hope International in Arlington, which aims to increase awareness of sex trafficking, takes the microphone. "It's a huge crime, and it's continuing to grow," Stoecker says, citing the government's most recent estimate of victims.

The D.C. officers are among thousands of law enforcement officials nationwide who have been trained in how to spot trafficking. In Montgomery County, police have investigated numerous brothels since the force was trained in 2005 and last year. Officers have found a few trafficking victims, but there have been no prosecutions.

The Justice Department runs law enforcement task forces across the country. It's a top priority for the department's Civil Rights Division.

Justice officials have said there has been a 600 percent increase in U.S. cases. But the department said in a report last September: "In absolute numbers, it is true that the prosecution figures pale in comparison to the estimated scope of the problem."

The 148 cases filed this decade by the Civil Rights Division and U.S. attorney's offices might not include what Justice officials call a limited number of child trafficking prosecutions by the Criminal Division, Justice officials said Friday. They could not provide a number.

Arlington County Commonwealth's Attorney Richard E. Trodden, who studied trafficking for the Virginia Crime Commission, said he doesn't know of any local prosecutions in Northern Virginia.

Nearly seven years after it began, the anti-trafficking campaign rolls on.

"This is important for me personally," Gonzales said in January as he announced the creation of a Justice Department unit to focus on trafficking cases. Encouraged by Gonzales, who sent letters to all 50 governors, states continued to pass anti-trafficking laws.

Maryland enacted a law in May that toughens penalties.

Virginia has not taken legislative action; some legislators have said that a law isn't needed.

HHS is still paying people to find victims. Last fall, the agency announced $3.4 million in new "street outreach" awards to 22 groups nationwide.

Nearly $125,000 went to Mosaic Family Services, a nonprofit agency in Dallas. For the past year, its employees have put out the word to hospitals, police stations, domestic violence shelters -- any organization that might come into contact with a victim.

"They're doing about a thousand different things," said Bill Bernstein, Mosaic's deputy director.

Three victims were found.


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