I understand the rationale for sting operations, and perhaps there are some cases where they’re warranted in order to catch criminals in the act. Of course, the law enforcement personnel involved in the sting also engage in the same criminal activity for which they’ll end up arresting their suspects. But nothing happens to the cops, because they were only trying to catch the “real” criminals.
People get arrested and imprisoned all the time on technicalities. But somehow, law enforcement personnel involved in truly criminal activity are technically not in violation of any law, simply because they’re law enforcement.
Even if you’re one to support the idea of sting operations for things like catching a thief or even trying to stop local drug distribution, you might draw the line somewhere. What if law enforcement ran, improved, and maintained a child porn website, for the purpose of catching those uploading and downloading the material?
That’s actually exactly what happened. In fact, it was the FBI who ran the site – called Playpen – on the so-called dark web, improving its “technical functionality,” and monitoring all the activity on the site. This sting was called Operation Pacifier. From The Dallas Morning News:
The 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.
[Daryl Glenn] 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 [Texas] man was using. That led to the two child pornography charges against him.
During Operation Pacifier, tens of thousands of child porn images were uploaded to the site. As a result of the operation, in total, about 180 people were arrested around the country, including those uploading and downloading child porn. According to the FBI, 49 children were rescued from abuse.
Some people – like Pawlak’s attorney – see this as totally unjustifiable.
“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.”
Even the ACLU don’t see this as justifiable behavior on the FBI’s part. They compared Operation Pacifier to Fast and Furious.
And a philosophy and religion professor at the University of North Texas Douglas Anderson isn’t buying the government’s rationale for their tactics in this case. The Dallas Morning News reported:
“It’s a moral conundrum for anyone who takes the view that we are committed to protecting [children] 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 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.
No, they didn’t act within the law. They acted outside the law. That’s the nature of sting operations.