FBI reluctance stalls Bush anti-pornography push

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WASHINGTON, Sep 20 (Reuters) President George W Bush, twice elected with solid backing of conservative Christians, promised to curb adult pornography in the United States.

But the administration has had little effect on the 13 billion dollars industry, anti-porn activists say, largely because the FBI has focused investigations on small operations producing extreme forms of smut instead of on the bigger companies.

Adult-obscenity investigations have taken a back seat to more pressing issues such as terrorism, even though former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales named obscenity as a top priority, two FBI officials said.

Internal FBI guidelines also encourage agents to focus on the most egregious violations - material that depicts rape, defecation or sex with animals.

Pornography producers ''know that they don't have to worry about being prosecuted because it's only the small companies that are producing that kind of material,'' said Patrick Trueman, who headed the Justice Department's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section between 1988 and 1993.

Even though the prosecution of child pornography has greatly increased, porn-industry insiders agree that adult business has not been dented, despite repeated promises by Bush and his attorneys general to be more aggressive.

''I and most of my colleagues view these kinds of cases as being pretty much an anomaly,'' said lawyer Jeffrey Douglas, who is defending porn producer Max Hardcore on obscenity charges.

Hardcore's films show rough sex and abusive treatment of women.

Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said the department does not have guidelines that spell out what sexually explicit material crosses the line into obscenity. ''It's basically prosecutorial discretion,'' he said.

DIFFICULT TO DEFINE Obscenity has been notoriously difficult to define in a legal context -- ''I know it when I see it,'' Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said in 1964.

Under a test established by the court in 1973, the material in question must depict sex in a manner that offends contemporary community standards and is devoid of artistic or scientific value to be found obscene.

That has given law enforcers enormous discretion.

Under Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush, prosecutors like Trueman targeted a cross-section of the industry in sting operations that drove several of the largest porn distributors in the country out of business.

Under Democratic President Bill Clinton, the Justice Department pursued few, if any, adult-obscenity cases.

The current Republican president promised to crack down on porn during the 2000 election campaign, and appointed religious conservative John Ashcroft as his first attorney general.

Ashcroft's successor, Alberto Gonzales, set up a separate unit with four prosecutors and 10 FBI agents focused on adult obscenity, on top of the existing Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section.

Phil Burress, president of the anti-porn group Citizens for Community Values, said Ashcroft and Gonzales both assured him that obscenity would be a high priority.

But the FBI - which is under the Justice Department - has a different story, he said.

''They told us they're only going to go after the worst of the worst. If it doesn't involve children, animals or human waste they're not going to pursue it,'' Burress said.

While the department has quadrupled its child-pornography caseload - from 352 prosecutions in 1997 to 1,486 in 2004 - adult porn cases are few and far between.

''What you have today is a whole generation of people who have grown up with pornography who don't think there's anything wrong with it,'' Trueman said.

Others question whether the government should be prosecuting adult pornography at all, arguing that its widespread appeal undermines the notion that it violates community standards.

Commercial demand will always be better regulator than the threat of prosecution, they say.

''The market finds what it wants, and most people think that nuns being raped really isn't erotic in any way, shape or form,'' said Paul Fishbein, president of AVN Media Network, the porn-industry trade publication.

REUTERS SZ YA RAI0917

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