FBI targets on-line child pornography

FBI agents launched a national crackdown on computer child pornography yesterday, searching about 100 homes nationwide. The investigation has led to arrests of at least a dozen people who are suspected of using America Online (AOL) for posting images of child pornography and using the service for other pedophile activities.

The investigation, which involved about 40 states and scores of agents, was coordinated by the FBI's Maryland-Delaware office. It marks the agency's first national effort to counter the growing presence of child pornography on computer on-line services.


The FBI said its evidence includes pornographic images involving victims mostly ages 2 to 13 who were pictured either nude or engaged in actual or simulated sex.

"We are not going to permit exciting new technology to be misused to exploit and injure children," Attorney General Janet Reno said in a statement released last night.


America Online was not a target of the investigation and supplied the FBI with numerous complaints from subscribers who had received unsolicited electronic mail of pornographic images. The service has 3.5 million subscribers.

"As a general rule, I don't think law enforcement and society knew of the large volume of people engaged in distributing this pornographic material -- hard-core, explicit stuff dealing with children," said Timothy P. McNally, special agent in charge of the FBI's Maryland-Delaware office.

In a letter to members yesterday, AOL President Stephen M. Case said the company respects all private communications -- including electronic mail, instant messages and private chat rooms -- and does not monitor them. But when members began turning over graphic photographs they had received, and it appeared that federal law had been violated, the company cooperated with investigators.

"While our strong desire is to trust the judgment of our members and err on the side of free expression, we also recognize that community standards need to be enforced," Mr. Case wrote. "We aren't going to let this type of inappropriate use of our service ruin AOL for the rest of us."

Many of the images were attached to private electronic mail messages, which provided information about the senders that investigators used to track them down.

In the raids, agents seized computers and documents related to storing, sending and receiving child pornography.

Under federal law, it is a crime to possess or disseminate child pornography. Maximum penalties are 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The raids elicited a cautious response from Evan Hendricks, publisher of Privacy Times, a biweekly newsletter on information law.


Although the target of the investigation was commendable, he said, he worried that a broad search and seizure of computer records might be invasive.

"There's a lot of stuff in there that may have nothing to do with the investigation," he said. "The FBI has not shown a lot of times that they're very good at using a scalpel. A lot of times they'll go with a sledgehammer."

The investigation took root two years ago as agents began looking into the disappearance of 11-year-old George Stanley "Junior" Burdynski, who vanished from his Prince George's County neighborhood and has never been found.

While investigating, police discovered a pedophile ring and learned how on-line services were being used to disseminate child pornography. After hearing of complaints filed to AOL, and hearing reports of similar problems from local police departments, the Maryland FBI proposed a national undercover investigation, officials said.

The FBI was assisted by an agent of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The investigation was coordinated by the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the Justice Department's Criminal Division.

"The reason we're going public now is because of the nature of the problem and to let the people know they need to be mindful and alert to the vulnerabilities of their children," Mr. McNally said.


Searches were conducted in cities including Newark, N.J., Miami, New York and Dallas.

In Maryland, four homes were searched -- two in Baltimore and two in Montgomery County -- and no suspects have been arrested. However, the investigation also yielded related cases against two men -- one from Maryland and the other from Virginia -- who were charged last spring with traveling across state lines with the intention of engaging in sex with a minor.

AOL spokeswoman Pam McGraw said yesterday that the service is aggressive through its volunteer staff, which helps monitor the chat rooms and other public areas. And it also has improved its parental controls, which allow adults to restrict parts of AOL and the Internet for their children.