The FBI’s Porn-Again Stupidity

A small army of new recruits to the FBI thought they were signing on to fight terrorism only to find out that their superiors are more interested in old-fashioned crime, including adult pornography, than in heading off another 9/11. At least, that’s the way it seems.

Reports from inside the bureau, which considers itself the front line in defense of homeland security, portray a growing disenchantment among its 12,000 agents with the refusal of their superiors _ from the special agents in charge of the more than 50 field offices to those occupying the J. Edgar Hoover Building headquarters here _ to quit chasing bank robbers and concentrate on potential bomb throwers.

“They still think Pretty Boy Floyd is just around the corner. Now they believe Jenna Jameson is on his arm,” a longtime observer of the situation cracked. “The grumbling among brick agents who want to move into this century is growing louder by the day.”

The latest angst-producing move by headquarters is to urge field commanders to create new anti-pornography units _ not the despicable child-exploitation kind, but the plain, old adult-type watched by millions of so-called consenting adults in the privacy of their homes and hotel rooms to the tune of billions of dollars annually. The edict is aimed at carrying out a congressional initiative that requires the bureau to assign 10 agents to adult pornography. A dedicated squad will be set up in the Washington Field Office, and the rest of the bureau’s offices may assign agents to the task as their resources permit.

Before anyone gets the idea that this is an endorsement of an industry that has taken over the Internet, cable, satellite and video sales and created an entire new class of celebrity performers, let’s be clear: The rights and wrongs, legal and moral, of voyeuristic sex are far beyond my expertise to discuss. The federal courts have spoken any number of times about the First Amendment aspects of this matter and ultimately have measured obscenity against the backdrop of prevailing community standards. The disgusting, abominable distribution of material involving children is another story, of course.

What is important here is whether the FBI’s resources should be used to pursue those involved in what has become an increasingly open and pervasive industry of garden-variety pornography. If the government is ready now to launch the bureau against the producers and distributors and displayers, including some of the nation’s largest entertainment and hotel corporations, of this material, what has happened to the War on Terror? Has it been won? Taking agents away from the hunt for domestic al Qaeda cells would seem to indicate this. Certainly, that’s the way some of those agents are reported to feel.

If nothing else, the bureau and the Justice Department are all about winning convictions. So the orders are to aim anti-porn efforts at the purveyors of the really kinky stuff like bestiality, material that might have a chance of success in front of juries. The attorney general also seems to be interested in putting his boss’s conservative base at ease as to where he stands on this and other social issues. He seems to want to make it clear that he too believes that pornography is destroying family values and exposing children to the evils of deviant behavior.

But how are agents, many of whom undoubtedly have peeked at pornography themselves at times, to divert their attention from potential terrorism to what many Americans have come to view as an enterprise both acceptable and victimless? In truth, most of them won’t have to do so. But the fact that any are being asked to take on what is clearly an unrewarding and often futile exercise at this particular time is symbolic of why there has been one failure after another in the attempts to modernize this institution into one that is proactive and not reactive.

The FBI was never conceived to be the guardian of American morals, although their leaders in the past assigned themselves that role on occasion. Their most recent mandate has been to provide a viable defense against those who would tear down our society. If the FBI is to succeed, it should be allowed to get on with the job before it is too late. Leave the bank robbers and prostitutes and vilest of pornographers to other agencies and the protection of adult morals to the parents and preachers.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)