Folding of Anti-Smut Unit Revives Debate on How to Fight Porn
By David Baumann | May 4, 2011 1:39 pm

A Justice Department decision to fold a controversial DOJ anti-pornography task force has reignited the battle over exactly what type of material and prosecutions  the department should focus its attention on.

On the one side are senators and anti-pornography activists who say that the DOJ needs to target pornography that features adults.

On the other side are DOJ officials who contend that they should focus their limited resources on the most egregious type of material–pornography involving children.

This debate has gone on for years and played a part in the ousting of U.S. Attorneys during the George W. Bush administration. It now has heated up again, as a result of a DOJ decision to quietly fold its Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, which was headed by controversial attorney Brent Ward. The task force’s work has been transferred to the department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Ward’s home state of Utah questioned that decision during Wednesday’s hearing. Hatch has spearheaded a letter to Holder, raising concern about the DOJ position on pornography. “I think you need to do a lot more,” Hatch told Holder. Referring to the task force being abolished, Hatch commented, “That looks to me like the department does not give enough attention to adult pornography”.

Also this week,  Morality in Media, an anti-pornography group,  has urged its members to flood the DOJ switchboard with phone calls urging stricter enforcement of the nation’s obscenity laws. The group went so far as to set up a toll-free telephone number that allows members to call the department.

The controversial task force that is now the focus of attention was established in May 2005. “The Task Force will be dedicated to the investigation and prosecution of the distributors of hard-core pornography that meets the test for obscenity, as defined by the United States Supreme Court,” then-Criminal Division chief Christopher Wray said in a statement announcing its formation. “Advances in technology and mass marketing, particularly over the past decade,  have enabled the traffic in obscenity to take on a more national and even global reach.”

The announcement continued: “The special challenges that obscenity cases pose in the computer age require an equally specialized response. A coordinated Task Force of prosecutorial expertise is the best way to meet those challenges.”

Ward, already a federal prosecutor, was named its head.  He already was known as a crusading anti-pornography prosecutor. As recounted by The Nation magazine in a March 2007 article, Ward first attracted attention when he gave impassioned testimony to former Attorney General Edwin Meese’s Commission on Pornography. And so, he appeared to be a natural for the job. Although the announcement of the task force did not specifically focus on adult pornography, that clearly became the group’s focus.

But not everyone was content with that focus. Ward complained that some U.S. Attorneys were unhappy, and he freely complained to his supervisors about what he believed to be a lack of cooperation. “We found that Ward often sought to invoke the Attorney General’s priorities when trying to persuade U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to assist the Task Force with obscenity prosecutions,” the DOJ Office of Inspector General said in its 2008 report on the firing of nine U.S. Attorneys during the Bush administration.  He also complained that the DOJ’s 2003-2008 strategic plan failed to cite obscenity as a department priority. And OIG reported that Ward griped that a set of DOJ Criminal Division enforcement priorities did not list obscenity prosecutions. Ward, according to the OIG, said the omission would encourage already-reluctant U.S. Attorneys not to take on obscenity cases.

Ward took his case directly to Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. “We have two U.S. Attorneys who are unwilling to take good cases we have presented to them,” Ward said, in an e-mail to Sampson. “They are Paul Charlton in Phoenix (this is urgent) and Dan Bogden in Las Vegas. In light of the AG’s comments at the [a recent conference] to ‘kick butt and take names,’ what do you suggest I do? Do you think at this point that these names should go through channels to reach the AG, or is it enough for me to give the names to you?”

The OIG report states that U.S. Attorneys had said they did not have the necessary staff to assist Ward on cases they considered marginal.

Both U.S. Attorneys were later fired.

The Barack Obama administration apparently agreed that the department was stretched thin and has decided to fold the task force.

In an April 15 letter to Hatch, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote, “The Department has focused its limited investigative and prosecutorial resources on the most egregious cases, particularly those that facilitate child exploitation and cases involving obscene depictions of child rape.”  He said that researchers have reported that, since the 1990s, there has been a dramatic increase in cases of exploitation of children. He wrote that since October 2008, DOJ has charged violations of the federal obscenity statute more than 150 times He said a federal grand jury in California earlier this month returned a 10-count superseding indictment in a significant obscenity case.

Weich was responding to a letter from Hatch and 41 other senators asking DOJ to  “enforce federal obscenity laws against major commercial distributors of hardcore pornography.”  It added that, “we know, more than ever how illegal adult obscenity contributes to violence against women, addiction, harm to children and sex trafficking.”

DOJ spokeswoman Laura Sweeney told Main Justice in a statement that, “As the Criminal Division has done in other areas in the past few years, it has worked to ensure it is using its limited resources in the most efficient and effective manner.”

Ward has returned to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Utah. He did not respond to a Main Justice message left on his office voice mail.

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