Feature:Opinion

Eric Holder’s dirty secret

A 2006 law that requires the U.S. Justice Department to deploy a high-tech system for catching child pornographers has identified hundreds of thousands of criminal suspects — and collected extensive evidence pointing to the locations of their child victims.

Yet, despite knowledge of this evidence, Attorney General Eric Holder has refused calls to take serious action.

Now, a Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee, and a government oversight panel on the warpath, could finally force Holder to explain two years of inaction that left thousands of children in danger.

Congress mandates action

To understand Holder’s outrageous failure to protect, some history is necessary.

Congressional interest in an online system for fighting child exploitation dates back to 2006, when Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) sponsored the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.

Though Sensenbrenner’s legislation is best known for its focus on sex offender registries, a lesser-known provision mandated that the Attorney General deploy “technology modeled after” a Canadian law enforcement system designed by Microsoft.

In the wake of the Justice Department’s rejection of Microsoft’s offer to donate its Child Exploitation Tracking System (CETS) system (citing its prosecution of the company for antitrust violations), Congress ordered Justice to provide a substitute.

That technology was deployed, and nearly overnight U.S. law enforcement began seeing and sharing information on an estimated 300,000-500,000 suspects trafficking in horrific video and photographs of children being raped, abused and even tortured.

A shocking picture emerges

The existence of this new law enforcement system — and the shocking picture then emerging of the full magnitude of the crisis — was disclosed in several Congressional hearings from 2006-2008.

Law enforcement experts working closely with the online system (known as the ICAC Data Network or Operation Fairplay) showed Congress satellite maps of the U.S., plotting the location of traffickers. In one 2008 Senate briefing, agents went online live and gave a stunned audience a glimpse of the buzzing hive of domestic child pornography trafficking, as it happened in real time.

Top federal officials confirmed what the cyber cops were seeing online. When asked during House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings, Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher and FBI officials Raul Roldan and Arnold Bell estimated there were “hundreds of thousands” of individuals in the U.S. engaged in child pornography crimes. All of this prompted Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) to plead with the Bush administration to ask Congress for more funding.

“If we’re serious about this,” said Barton, “let’s put some muscle [behind it] . . . If I’ve got to put out a major forest fire, I don’t send one firefighter, no matter how good he is. I mobilize the entire operation.” (video)

Child rescue

There was something more explosive emerging, however, than revelations about how easy it had become to arrest perpetrators. Law enforcement was now learning to follow the trail of child pornography back through the Internet to the door of “dual offenders,” criminals who trafficked in child pornography and were also hands-on offenders. Conservative estimates indicated this was at least one in three child pornography possessors.

For the first time in history, the technology existed to detect and stop child sexual abuse on a massive scale. Americans got their first glimpse of this child rescue technology when Oprah Winfrey devoted a one-hour show to the issue in late 2008, featuring three Ohio girls who had been rescued using the online system. They had been drugged and sexually assaulted during sleepovers, never even knowing what had happened until police found and told them.