WASHINGTON -- Embarrassed by accusations that his administration is "soft on child pornography," President Clinton rebuked the Justice Department yesterday for retreating from an expansive legal definition of the crime and ordered it to draw up new legislation that would ensure "the broadest possible protections against child pornography and exploitation."
In a highly unusual letter released by the White House, Mr. Clinton told Attorney General Janet Reno that he agreed with angry senators and conservative activists that federal prosecutors must "lead aggressively in the attack against the scourge of child pornography."
The White House was caught off guard in September when U.S. Solicitor General Drew S. Days III advised the Supreme Court that the administration was backing away from an earlier, stricter definition of child pornography. At issue is whether a child model must be nude or nearly nude to violate the child pornography law.
In his brief to the high court, Mr. Days said he would not seek to uphold the conviction of a Pennsylvania man convicted for owning three videotapes showing young girls posed suggestively in bathing suits and leotards.
That move immediately sparked fiery criticism from "pro-family" organizations and the Senate repudiated it last week in a unanimous resolution. Senators took the floor, denouncing the administration's action as a "travesty" that would create a "safe harbor" for pornographers and pedophiles.
A senior White House official said that "anger would be too strong" to describe Mr. Clinton's reaction, but that the president "had a lot of questions" about the Justice Department's handling of the case.
Another official said the president read the legal briefs presented to the Supreme Court and concluded that the law is ambiguous and should be amended.
"I fully agree with the Senate about what the proper scope of the child pornography law should be," Mr. Clinton said. He ordered Ms. Reno to move "promptly" to draw up new legislation to ensure that federal law reaches all forms of child pornography.
The 100-0 Senate vote sent a stinging message to a White House that has been trying to avoid the "soft on crime" label that has plagued many Democratic administrations.
The flap also has tarnished the standing of one of the administration's brightest legal stars. A former Yale law professor and one of the top-ranking blacks in the administration, Mr. Days has been considered a front-runner for the next Supreme Court opening.
Mr. Days refused to comment on the controversy but his defenders stressed his job is to interpret the law as it is written, not to interpret it to suit the political sensitivity of the White House.
The Child Protection Act of 1984 defines child pornography as depictions of minors engaged in sexual conduct or the "lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area."
Prosecutors in the Reagan and Bush administrations employed a broad definition, contending that the law could be violated if known pornographers depicted minors posed suggestively in skimpy clothing.
Last year, those prosecutors won the conviction of Stephen Knox of State College, Pa., for owning videotapes with such titles as "Ripe and Tender," "Young Flashers" and "Sweet Young Things."
In the tapes, models ranging in age from 10 to 17 wore some clothing, but "the camera would zoom in . . . on the girl's underpants or the area surrounding her genitals," according to a U.S. district judge who tried Knox.
An appeals court in Philadelphia upheld Knox's conviction by adopting the government's expansive definition of the 1984 law. It ruled the law is violated when a camera "unnaturally focuses on a minor child's clothed genital area with the obvious intent to produce an image sexually arousing to pedophiles."
In June, the Supreme Court announced it would hear Knox's appeal, and some attorneys came to his defense, arguing that the broad definition could lead to prosecutions over lingerie ads.
Under Mr. Days' interpretation, the law would be violated if photos or tapes contain "a visible depiction of the genitals or public area" and show a "child lasciviously engaging in sexual conduct."