Crackdown on Child Pornography

William Reid, left, and Claude E. Davenport of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Fairfax County, which runs the Cyber Crimes Center.
William Reid, left, and Claude E. Davenport of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Fairfax County, which runs the Cyber Crimes Center. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2007

Lewd photographs of children were disappearing from adult bookstores. Child porn magazines in plain brown envelopes were no longer reaching customers through the mail. It was the early 1990s, and experts believed that federal law enforcement efforts were ending child pornography.

"We thought this was one of those rare forms of social deviance, of criminal behavior, that had been eradicated," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Except for a fixated group of hard-core pedophiles, we thought it was gone."

But an increase of Internet-fueled child pornography has triggered a new federal crackdown. Cybercrime, the majority of which involves child pornography, is now the FBI's third-highest priority, behind counterterrorism and counterintelligence.

In the past 11 months, federal prosecutors in Virginia and Maryland have helped convict or send to prison on child pornography charges the former head of the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union, an Ivy League professor, a sheriff's deputy, a Transportation Security Administration employee, an Army sergeant, a former Navy cryptologist, a contractor working at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a National Institutes of Health researcher and a U.S. Capitol Police officer.

"The problem is as bad as it appears," said Arnold E. Bell, unit chief of the FBI's Calverton-based Innocent Images National Initiative. "There are not enough badges out there to cover all the people to be had in terms of offenders."

The crackdown on child pornography is a lesser-publicized effort than the pursuit of people who solicit sex from minors and are arrested, often through sting operations, when they show up for an encounter with someone they meet on the Internet. And it has touched off a debate over how often this type of crime leads to molestation of children and whether viewing photographs warrants years in prisons.

Some defense lawyers and treatment professionals say that the focus on pornography has become excessive. Many caught in the dragnet, they say, viewed images for their private gratification but never intended to hurt a child.

"Sending people to prison for five or 10 or 15 years for looking at pictures is killing an ant with a sledgehammer," said Peter Greenspun, who defended Charles Rust-Tierney, the former ACLU head sentenced to seven years in prison for downloading hundreds of images. "These people are being put on sex-offender registries, they are being ostracized from the community, for looking at pictures."

But the nature of the images alarms law enforcement officials, who say Internet child pornography is increasingly sadistic and depicts young children whose victimization fuels a growing market.

Many defendants obsessively collect huge numbers of images -- the FBI recently seized a computer with 1.5 million images suspected to be child pornography -- and many have molested children, officials say. People who download the images once or twice, possibly by accident, are unlikely to be prosecuted, officials said.

"You can't wrap your brain around what we're talking about here," said Bonnie S. Greenberg, a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office in Maryland. "We're not talking about a 16-year-old who looks like she could be 19. We're seeing prepubescent children who are being raped, babies, toddlers being tied up."

Underlying the debate are efforts by researchers to understand the perpetrators. Do people who view the images harbor a latent sexual interest in children that the Internet brings out, or does the Internet prompt the urges? And will people who view child pornography molest children?

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