Federal investigators have identified members of the U.S. military and defense contractors who allegedly bought and downloaded child pornography, at times on government computers. Some of the individuals have high-level security clearances.
The Pentagon released 94 pages of documents related to investigations that date back to 2002. Many names and details are blacked out, but the facts that remain are disturbing.
A contractor with top secret clearance, tasked with providing support to the National Security Agency, was charged with possessing child pornography. Investigators say he tampered with his work computer after agents searched his home. He fled the country and is believed to be in Libya. The case is closed until he is arrested and extradited.
A National Reconnaissance Office contract employee acknowledged he regularly viewed sexually explicit images of children.
One sailor admitted to accessing child pornography while stationed on the Naval destroyer U.S.S. Mason. He was sentenced to nearly four years in prison.
The findings come from a wider investigation conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That probe, dubbed Operation Flicker, identified more than 5,000 individuals who subscribed to child pornography websites. An assistant U.S. attorney general requested that the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, under the auspices of the Pentagon's Inspector General, assist in identifying Pentagon-affiliated individuals.
A Pentagon spokeswoman, Major Tanya Bradsher, says about 30 people with government ties were investigated for paying to access child pornography online. She said some of them had military e-mail addresses, but, she said, that does not mean they currently work for the Pentagon.
She said military members' spouses, for example, can get dot-mil accounts, as can other individuals. "Other government contractors, G.S. civilians or folks that were on active duty at that particular time. They could have been a reservist or former military. Like I said, they (the investigations) started back from 2002," she said.
Investigators wrote in the report that the child-porn purchasers put the Department of Defense, the military and national security at risk by compromising computer systems and military installations. They said the individuals' actions put them at risk of blackmail.
The chief of public affairs for the Pentagon's Inspector General, Gary Comerford, told VOA that the matter is being taken seriously, and the report speaks for itself.
While some of the cases were prosecuted; others were dropped due to lack of evidence.
Major Bradsher said the Pentagon cannot comment on any ongoing investigations. She added that allegations that did not rise to the level of criminal activity, but still violated the Department's policies on conduct and ethics, could be forwarded to the appropriate military service or command.
John Shehan, the executive director of the exploited division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told VOA the investigation is a stark reminder that people who have a sexual interest in children can come from all walks of life. "They can be high-ranking officials. They can be people in positions of trust, and oftentimes, they're individuals who try to put themselves in positions to be around children. There isn't a particular profile," he said.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was involved in many of these cases, as the Center helps law enforcement to identify the children in the images and videos. Shehan says the center has reviewed nearly 36 million images and movies, and it has helped to identify 3,000 victims since 2002.
He also said the center's U.S. Cyber-Tipline has received more than 923,000 reports of child sexual exploitation. And, Shehan said, there are similar tiplines in other countries for people to report the sexual abuse of children. "From a global standpoint, you could go to InHope.org and figure out where is the hotline in your country to make a report," he said.
The Pentagon released the heavily edited documents Friday after the U.S. newspaper The Boston Globe obtained the documents and reported on the investigations.