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FBI used photos of female office staff as bait in sexual predator stings, watchdog says

The J. Edgar Hoover Building, the headquarters of the FBI, in Washington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation used photographs of young female office staff to pose as children or sex workers in undercover stings to “entice sexual predators,” according to the Justice Department’s watchdog.

The female office staff were not certified to work as undercover agents or as “online covert employees,” the report issued Monday by the Justice Department inspector general’s office found. The findings were triggered by an investigation into whether a male FBI agent was having an inappropriate relationship with a female office employee, during which he asked her for “provocative pictures of herself” for undercover operations.

In the photos that were reviewed by the inspector general’s office, the employees’ faces were blurred and they were clothed. But the photos could still be downloaded, copied or shared beyond the sites they were used on, the report said — putting the female staff “in danger of becoming the victims of criminal offenses.” Some of the photos were used in a sex trafficking investigation, according to the inspector general’s office.

FBI policy states that office staff should not be used in undercover roles “unless it is absolutely necessary.” The law enforcement agency lacked a policy specifically addressing the use of photos, but the FBI only allows the use of another person’s identity in undercover operations with their consent and with proper authorization.

The agent being investigated told the female staff “not to tell anyone, including their supervisors,” about the use of their photos. He also had not obtained written consent from the staff to use their photos and had not kept records of which employees’ photos he used or which social media platforms they were used on.

FBI agents seeking to catch sex offenders often create fake personas on social media platforms, “building their presence” to “establish believability,” according to an article on the FBI’s website.

While some of the online conversations with sex offenders last only a few hours, others endure “for weeks, if not months or years,” the article said.

During the pandemic, sexual predators have seized on the many children stuck at home, spending more time online, where they are targets for exploitation. Reports of “online enticement” to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children spiked during 2020.

The FBI said it would evaluate its policies and establish “new language” to address the issues described by the inspector general’s office and that it “fully accepted” the recommendations made in the report.

The report’s findings about the conduct of the agent who had asked an office employee to send him provocative photos and asked staff not to disclose their participation in stings would be “promptly adjudicated,” the FBI said.