Associates of an Infoseek exec arrested for using chat to solicit a minor may have been shocked and surprised, but not the FBI.
As it turns out, a corner office at a high-profile high-tech company isn't such an unlikely place to find an online paedophile -- not according to records being yielded from a three-year-old Federal Bureau of Investigation crackdown on Internet pornography.
Of the 413 people arrested as part of the agency's "Innocent Images" investigation since 1995, "only a handful have not been upper-middle-class, educated white men," said Special Agent Pete Gulotta who serves as the investigation's chief spokesman. "They're almost all white males between the ages of 25 and 45. We've had military officers with high clearances, pediatricians, lawyers, school principals, and tech executives," Gulotta said of those arrested under Innocent Images.
Of those arrested, 337 have been convicted of online child pornography trafficking or using the Internet to solicit children for sex, Gulotta said. The investigation actually began in 1994, but was not publicly disclosed by the agency until the following year. The Innocent Images operation is aimed at "taking these people out before they strike," which is why agents frequently pose as youngsters in chat rooms, acting as bait for would-be child abusers, Gulotta said.
The Innocent Images project was sparked by the disappearance, in 1993, of a 10-year-old boy from Brantwood, Maryland, Gulotta said. While the boy, George Burdinski, was never found, the FBI obtained information linking his disappearance to a network of online child pornography traffickers, he said.
Gulotta objected strongly to claims that suspects are being "entrapped" by agents posing as minors. Agents most often enter chat rooms after getting tips that men seeking young sexual partners are frequenting the chat rooms, though in some cases they investigate chat sites simply because they have names that suggests paedophile activity occurs there, he said. "We are very careful in these investigations to make sure that the subject initiates the contact," Gulotta said. "And all these conversations are documented. It's very clear what's happening."
Tod Burke, an associate professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Radford, Virginia, also defended the legality of FBI undercover tactics, such as those used in the arrest of Infoseek exec Patrick Naughton. In Naughton's case, an FBI agent encountered Naughton in an Internet chat room, while the agent was posing as a 13-year-old girl, according to an affidavit filed in the case. "The investigators are not forcing people to commit criminal acts simply by being present in the chat room," he said. "These individuals are predisposed to commit these crimes." The criminal charges would be the same if the suspect originally contacted the potential victim by letter or by telephone, Burke added. (No US laws specifically outlaw child pornography and paedophile activity on the Internet, since they are already illegal in the offline world.)
"This is nothing new," Burke said. "Using a computer to go undercover is somewhat new, but for decades before that it was pen pal services" where law enforcement officials sought paedophiles, he said.
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