Monday, December 20, 2004

When Attorney General John Ashcroft was lampooned for shrouding the bare-breasted statue at the Department of Justice, many expected he would reverse the eight-year decline in obscenity prosecutions under former President Bill Clinton.

But today, as Mr. Ashcroft prepares to vacate the highest law enforcement office in the land, anti-porn advocates are deeply disappointed with the Bush administration’s record — under Mr. Ashcroft’s guidance — for pursuing peddlers of smut.

President Bush “has a worse record in his first term than Clinton had,” says Patrick A. Trueman, who served as chief of the Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS) under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

“When Ashcroft first came to office, the pro-family groups met with Ashcroft and made our case,” recalls Mr. Trueman, who like many expected pornography to be a top priority for the new attorney general. “Who does he get to run CEOS? The deputy of the section under Clinton.”

Andrew Oosterbaan, who referred questions to a Justice Department spokesman, worked in the department under Attorney General Janet Reno and was made chief of the division in the Bush administration. Under his command, CEOS has won 37 convictions, according to the division’s “Obscenity Prosecutions Summary Report” released last month.

“Please don’t tell me that you have that many people on staff at those kinds of rates and all you have to show for it is 37 convictions,” says David Miller, vice president of Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values. “There is not one single pro-family group that thinks CEOS is serious about going after hard-core, major-league pornographers.”

Mr. Miller, along with other anti-porn advocates, says Mr. Oosterbaan should be replaced. “Drew is a failure,” agrees Mr. Trueman.

Department of Justice spokesman Mark Corallo says that the criticism of Mr. Oosterbaan is “completely unfair” and that he “has the full support of the attorney general.”

Mr. Oosterbaan inherited a division from the Clinton administration that “was a dead effort,” Mr. Corallo says. “He started from scratch.

“Everyone here knows that Drew Oosterbaan took an issue that was not just neglected, but ignored for 10 years, and he has built a section and a team that has been aggressive,” he says. “They have done terrific work.”

Of the 37 convictions obtained by CEOS, critics say, some were cases initiated under Mr. Clinton. And many of them were the most extreme types of cases, such as child pornography or, as Mr. Trueman calls it, “excrement-type porn.”

“Their philosophy has been to prosecute the most obscene material,” says Mr. Trueman, now a lawyer with the Family Research Council. Left untargeted, he says, is the more run-of-the-mill hard-core pornography that saturates the Internet and is easily purchased on hotel room television sets.

“Our philosophy when I was chief was that you go after a variety of things,” Mr. Trueman says. “You treat it like every other crime and do the best you can.”

His assessment of the Bush administration’s efforts to curb obscenity is shared by Paul Cambria, a lawyer who is a tireless defender of pornographers.

Mr. Cambria told Adult Video News, an online magazine that covers the pornography industry, that the Department of Justice is exaggerating its successes prosecuting obscene material by lumping it together with child pornography.

“When you track down their convictions, most of them are pleas to child porn. Some of them have to do with extreme types of adult entertainment: bestiality, or really hard-core depictions of rape or situations like that,” he says. “That is not mainstream product. I have not seen any mainstream adult products prosecuted.”

Mr. Corallo says “nothing is off the table” when it comes to prosecuting hard-core pornography.

“Obscenity is a crime, and we’re going to go after it,” he says. “You have to start with the worst of the worst. That doesn’t mean that we think or believe that only the most explicit pornography is obscene.”

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, worries about the explosion of pornography in recent years. “It takes over your mind,” he says. “There are a lot of people who are addicted to pornography.

“I have seen where homes and lives have been ruined,” Mr. Hatch says. “I have seen dozens of marriages — good, decent, religious people — who have gotten into pornography, and their marriages have broken up.”

After Mr. Ashcroft was first confirmed, he talked a hard line against pornography and anti-porn activists had high hopes.

“Obscenity invades our homes persistently through the mail, phone, VCR, cable TV, and now the Internet,” Mr. Ashcroft told a South Carolina gathering of prosecutors in 2002. “This multibillion-dollar industry with links to organized crime has strewn its victims from coast to coast. Never before has so much obscene material been so easily accessible to minors.”

He cited statistics about how 9 out of 10 children between the ages of 8 and 16 have been exposed to obscene material on the Internet, usually while trying to do homework.

“Clinical and experimental evidence show a correlation between exposure to sexually violent materials and an increase in aggressive behavior directed toward women,” Mr. Ashcroft told prosecutors. “Child molesters often use obscene material to seduce their prey, to lower the inhibitions of the victim, and to serve as an instruction manual.

“Most Americans do not want their homes besieged by an avalanche of obscenity and they support overwhelmingly vigorous enforcement of federal laws against Internet obscenity.”

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