The FBI Ran a Child Porn Site to Catch Predators, and Now the Accused Are Crying Foul

When Daryl Glenn Pawlak logged into a large child pornography website and downloaded images using his work computer, he was charged with receipt and possession of child pornography.The operator of the website that was exploiting children, however, was not arrested.That’s because it was the FBI. And federal prosecutors are defending the agency’s decision to secretly hijack and peddle child porn for two weeks as part of a sting operation.During that time, tens of thousands of images of child pornography were uploaded to the site."Not only was the government the largest distributor of child pornography ... it was also the largest exploiter of children," Pawlak’s attorney said in a court filing. "This conduct is the essence of outrageousness, and a serious need for deterrence exists."The case has ignited debate among legal scholars and defense attorneys about internet privacy and the FBI's decision to keep such a website up and running while more children were harmed.Dozens of defense attorneys have filed motions to suppress evidence from the controversial child pornography sting, called Operation Pacifier. In some cases, federal judges have granted those motions. But most attempts to get charges thrown out have failed, legal experts say, even though some judges have ruled that the government violated the law and acted inappropriately.Joining legal challenges nationwide, Pawlak's attorneys are trying to get the charges dismissed, arguing that the government went too far by using a single warrant in Virginia to hack the computers of people all over the country, including his client.The American Civil Liberties Union compared it to Operation Fast and Furious, a failed sting operation run by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives beginning in 2009 that resulted in 2,000 firearms winding up in the hands of criminals.In that case, ATF allowed people to illegally buy the guns to traffic to Mexico in the hopes of tracking them to Mexican drug cartel leaders. But that didn’t happen, and instead the agency lost track of the guns, including two that were found at the scene of the 2010 murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.The FBI declined to comment about Operation Pacifier. The U.S. attorney's office in Dallas said in court filings that it acted within the law and that dismissing the case would give people like Pawlak a "free pass" for trolling the web for photos and videos of children being sexually abused."The FBI's process here should be encouraged, not deterred," a prosecutor in Dallas said in a court filing.Defense attorneys say the matter will eventually be resolved in the appellate courts, if not the U.S. Supreme Court.Historically, the government has taken down such websites immediately.Douglas Anderson, chair of the University of North Texas' philosophy and religion department, said the government was conducting a cost-benefit analysis, weighing damage to children against catching people who download child porn.He said he was surprised children were used in such a calculation."It's a moral conundrum for anyone who takes the view that we are committed to protecting them in all ways," Anderson said. "They're weighing it against these kids' lives."World opinion says we have a basic duty to protect children, Anderson said."You'd have to have something pretty overwhelming to offset damaging more people," he said. "It would have to be awfully extreme to allow even one child to be harmed."The trap is setThe FBI in early 2015 seized, controlled and monitored a child pornography website on the "dark web" called Playpen for about two weeks.Playpen began operating around August 2014 on the Tor Network, a group of volunteer-operated servers that allows users to browse the internet anonymously using free software.A username and password were required to view the images. A foreign law enforcement agency's tip led the FBI to Playpen's server, authorities said.In February, the FBI obtained a search warrant from a federal judge in Virginia that allowed the agency to run Playpen for up to 30 days on a government-controlled server.Agents hacked into the computers of people who logged into Playpen and accessed its content. Agents were not authorized to rummage through a computer's files or search other content, court records said.Pawlak, 39, created a Playpen account in September 2014 and accessed the website more than 300 times, prosecutors said. In less than a second, agents knew what computer the Burleson man was using. That led to the two child pornography charges against him.  Continue reading...

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