Federal obscenity hunters, who claim that they have curbed the distribution of child pornography through the mail and other traditional methods, said Tuesday that they are now combatting lewd material generated and distributed by computer from Denmark and elsewhere.
"We're right back, unfortunately, where we started," said J. Robert Flores, senior trial attorney in the Justice Department's child exploitation and obscenity section. "Much of the material is again surfacing in computers." So far, federal prosecutors have filed child pornography charges against six individuals and as many as nine more cases may be brought this month, said George Burgasser, acting chief of the section. The charges are based largely on information obtained by U.S. Customs Service agents during 31 searches in 15 states and 30 cities in March.
The current effort began with a May, 1992, search of a Danish citizen's home that resulted in the seizure of a computer system, records and hundreds of pornographic photographs of children. The search was conducted at the request of U.S. authorities.
In that case, authorities say, individuals throughout the world were able to participate in a child pornography electronic bulletin board known as Bamse. By paying a fee, they could receive "child and deviant hard-core pornography" in the form of graphic images, text and computer games that could be downloaded into personal computers, authorities said.
In a second raid in October, Danish police searched the home of an operator of another child pornography bulletin board dubbed Screwdriver.
Customs agents estimated that 45 Americans were importing child pornography through the two systems. That conclusion led to the March raids, dubbed Operation Long Arm and characterized by Burgasser as "the largest anti-child pornography operation in U.S. history."
Burgasser described the computer distribution of pornography as "more invidious" than that distributed through more traditional means because it enables "pedophiles to reach into the homes of at-risk children" through computers and lure them into lewd activities.
While no federal charges have been filed against anyone attempting to gain access to youngsters, some state cases have been brought, department officials said without elaborating.
Burgasser and his colleagues said that they decided to call attention to the drive against computer pornography, in part to alert parents to the threat at a time when computer use by children is being encouraged.
The Justice Department also said that it hopes to "serve notice that it will not allow trade" in child pornography, "regardless of whether it is by conventional or high-tech methods," he said.
Carl Stern, the department's director of public affairs, noted that prosecutors do not normally release information about ongoing investigations. But in this case, he said, "tens of millions of Americans own home computers," and they risk prison sentences if they use the technology to obtain child pornography.
The decision to brief reporters on the issue also came at a time when the child exploitation and obscenity section's staff has dropped from a peak of 21 in 1990 to 13, and after the section had been criticized as overzealous by some civil libertarians.