Pentagon lagged on pursuing porn cases

Senator calls it risk to US security

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / January 5, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s investigation of defense and intelligence employees who downloaded child pornography is being criticized in Congress after the Department of Defense acknowledged that its investigators failed to check thoroughly whether its employees were on a list of suspected porn viewers.

In 2006, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which conducts Internet pornography investigations, produced a list of 5,200 Pentagon employees suspected of viewing child pornography and asked the Pentagon to review it. But the Pentagon checked only about two-thirds of the names, unearthing roughly 300 defense and intelligence employees who allegedly had viewed child pornography on their work or home computers.

The defense investigators failed to check an additional 1,700 names on the list, defense officials have revealed in correspondence with Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa.

Downloading child pornography is a federal crime, punishable by prison sentences of five to 20 years. But members of Congress and other officials say it raises additional concerns when such materials are accessed by employees with high-level security classifications, because it leaves them vulnerable to blackmail.

Acknowledging the lapse, the Pentagon has told Grassley that child porn investigations were not a high priority at the time of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation, and that it is now checking the additional names. A spokesman would not elaborate in response to a question from the Globe, which first reported the child pornography investigation last summer.

“These cases were not considered a priority by the Defense Department in the first place, and they should have been,’’ Grassley said this week in an interview. Grassley wrote last month to the Department of Defense inspector general, Gordon S. Heddell, demanding a thorough accounting of the department’s actions.

“We want a change in behavior in the Defense Department where things of this criminal nature are a top priority, even more than government employees at other agencies because of the national security connections,’’ Grassley said.

The cases stemmed from an expansive ICE investigation four years ago known as Project Flicker. The agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, conducted the inquiry because the illegal content was downloaded from foreign-based websites, giving ICE jurisdiction under its customs mandate.

The new information uncovered by Grassley and his staff suggests the number of violations linked to the Pentagon could be higher than the 300 previously reported. No new count has been released since investigators began going over their lists again.

In a Nov. 19 letter from Heddell to Grassley, the Pentagon inspector general said that child pornography was “not one of DCIS’ investigative priorities.’’

Heddell, who also oversees the criminal investigations division that conducted the probe, said the department is now working aggressively to correct problems with the investigation. He told Grassley that “if circumstances dictate, additional appropriate steps will be taken to ensure allegations involving DoD employees are thoroughly explored.’’

Grassley said in his Dec. 17 letter to Heddell that he was not confident in the Pentagon’s response.

“The failure of management to recognize the potential national security implications of DoD service members, civilian employees and contractors allegedly purchasing child pornography is disturbing,’’ Grassley said.

In the interview, Grassley added that any possible criminal action against the 1,700 individuals would probably come too late, because the statute of limitations has probably expired.

“From a criminal standpoint these are probably stale,’’ Grassley said. “I will start being satisfied when I see some administrative action being taken.’’

The Pentagon last summer painted a far different picture of the investigation. The Pentagon said at the time that 300 employees or contractors were identified as allegedly accessing child pornography, and 70 of them were ultimately pursued. In the end, only a handful of military personnel or Defense Department employees were referred for prosecution.

At least two of the cases involved contractors with top- secret clearances at the National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on foreign communications. A separate case involved a contractor working at the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites, the Globe revealed in July.

Reports from Pentagon investigators obtained by the Globe last summer said many of the 300 known cases at the time were not pursued because the agency did not have adequate resources. In others, they stated, there was insufficient evidence for prosecution. For example, in child pornography cases, the victims depicted in the images need to be positively identified as minors by law enforcement officials for charges to be brought.

Grassley, whose staff has a reputation for conducting dogged oversight of the Pentagon and other executive branch agencies, has a long list of questions for Pentagon investigators, including when all the names will be checked, how many individuals on the original list have top security clearances, why so many cases were dropped, and how many were referred to Army, Navy, and Air Force investigators.

“Numerous questions remain as to the conduct of DCIS personnel, specifically their failure to properly investigate these serious allegations,’’ Grassley told Heddell. Grassley also called for the inspector general from another agency to perform a “peer review of’’ DCIS’s work “so that failures like this never happen again.’’

Bryan Bender can be reached at