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)
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.
Eric Holder was confronted with this news immediately upon arriving at the Justice Department. On Capitol Hill, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) pressured him publicly and repeatedly to take bold action, which he vowed to do.
Privately, my organization, PROTECT, began briefing President-elect Obama’s transition team on the urgent need to take action on child rescues even before the inauguration. Throughout 2009, we held face-to-face meetings with officials all the way up the chain of command, ending with a half-hour meeting with Holder and his staff. From the Adam Walsh Act requirements to the law enforcement maps, he was fully briefed and knew lives were at stake.
One of our consistent requests to the Holder Justice Department was that they at least ask Congress for the full funding authorized under the PROTECT Act of 2008 for law enforcement. It was hard to convince Congress of the urgent need for child rescue funding, we explained, when the administration didn’t even care enough to ask for it.
Two years and three budgets later, it’s clear Eric Holder will not take action on these atrocities until he is forced to do so politically, and it’s long past time for Congress to do just that. There should be no excuses for a government that has the means to protect children from predation and exploitation, yet refuses to do so.
Congress needs to fully investigate what the Justice Department knew and when it knew it. It needs a full accounting of what evidence resides in Justice Department-sponsored databases that could locate both child predators and their victims. It needs to demand that the full resources of the federal government are immediately deployed for child rescue in every community across the U.S.
Every child victim who has been, or can be, identified should be brought to safety now, before they come to further, grievous harm.
Grier Weeks is Executive Director of the National Association to Protect Children. He testified before Congress on child exploitation in 2006, 2007 and 2008.