Over the past 14 years, the Central Intelligence Agency has secretly amassed credible evidence that at least 10 of its employees and contractors committed sexual crimes involving children.
Though most of these cases were referred to US attorneys for prosecution, only one of the individuals was ever charged with a crime. Prosecutors sent the rest of the cases back to the CIA to handle internally, meaning few faced any consequences beyond the possible loss of their jobs and security clearances. That marks a striking deviation from how sex crimes involving children have been handled at other federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Administration. CIA insiders say the agency resists prosecution of its staff for fear the cases will reveal state secrets.
The revelations are contained in hundreds of internal agency reports obtained by BuzzFeed News through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.
One employee had sexual contact with a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old. He was fired. A second employee purchased three sexually explicit videos of young girls, filmed by their mothers. He resigned. A third employee estimated that he had viewed up to 1,400 sexually abusive images of children while on agency assignments. The records do not say what action, if any, the CIA took against him. A contractor who arranged for sex with an undercover FBI agent posing as a child had his contract revoked.
Only one of the individuals cited in these documents was charged with a crime. In that case, as in the only previously known case of a CIA staffer being charged with child sexual crimes, the employee was also under investigation for mishandling classified material.
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The CIA did not answer detailed questions, saying only that the agency “takes all allegations of possible criminal misconduct committed by personnel seriously.”
A spokesperson for the Eastern District of Virginia, where many of the criminal referrals were sent, also did not answer detailed questions, saying the district “takes seriously its responsibility to hold accountable federal government employees who violate federal law within our jurisdiction.”
Four former officials who are familiar with how internal investigations work at intelligence agencies told BuzzFeed News there are many reasons that prosecutors might not pursue a criminal case. One of them, familiar with the workings of the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General, said the agency is concerned that in a criminal case, it could lose control of sensitive information.
The former official, who reviewed the declassified inspector general reports, characterized the concern from CIA lawyers as, “We can’t have these people testify, they may inadvertently be forced to disclose sources and methods.”
The official, who noted the agency has had a problem with child abuse images stretching back decades, said they understand the need to protect “sensitive and classified equities.” However, “for crimes of a certain class whether it’s an intelligence agency or not, you just have to figure out how to prosecute these people.”
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Sexual crimes involving children, including the viewing of images of abuse, have been uncovered at other agencies that handle sensitive information. In a November 2009 report, the Department of Defense acknowledged that dozens of Pentagon staff members or contractors had such images. In 2014, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community found that two officials from the National Reconnaissance Office, which oversees America’s spy satellites, acknowledged viewing images of child sexual abuse during polygraph examinations.
At a symposium in 2016, Daniel Payne, a top Pentagon security official, said that when workers’ computers were examined, “the amount of child porn I see is just unbelievable.”
The child abuse revelations are drawn from an unprecedented release of reports by the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General.
BuzzFeed News gained access to these documents after a decadelong pursuit, which included 13 public records requests and three separate Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.
Those requests, the earliest of which date back to 2012, were for investigations closed by the Office of the Inspector General, which acts independently of the agency to examine misconduct by employees or contractors.
New requests were filed each subsequent year. At first the CIA did not respond to the requests; then, it said it would take years to provide any documents. Those requests were followed in 2014, 2015, and 2020 by lawsuits, and the agency entered into negotiations about what documents to release. The coronavirus pandemic delayed the process by a year, but the agency finally began to release the documents in March and will release the final set in December.
BuzzFeed News is publishing the reports here for public review.
Among more than 3,000 pages, covering the years 2004 to 2019, are investigations big and small involving billing irregularities by contractors, a spy who expensed a visit to an overseas “gentleman’s club,” and an employee who used government computer systems to resell more than 700 items purchased at yard sales.
Other reports have been the subject of previous news coverage, such as the CIA’s involvement in the production of the film Zero Dark Thirty, the torture of detainees held at black site prisons, and a decades-old operation in Peru that led to the death of missionaries.
More recent reports show that a CIA employee was investigated in October 2018 for using agency computer systems and databases to conduct “unofficial searches” on her brother, and that the inspector general substantiated allegations in a January 2018 memorandum that another CIA employee violated the Hatch Act, which limits political activity by civil servants in the executive branch.
The documents also reveal the pattern of sexual abuse cases, whereby internal investigators unearthed evidence of sexual crimes involving children but federal prosecutors brought no charges.
As is typical of intelligence documents, the records have been heavily redacted. Among the information that has been hidden are the names of the accused employees and contractors and details about their jobs at the CIA. The agency cites privacy reasons, national security, and a federal law that exempts the CIA from disclosing details about its operations.
“Not knowing the identities of the suspects is a hindrance in identifying these cases and why they were declined,” the spokesperson for the Eastern District of Virginia said.
Of the 10 workers who the inspector general found had committed sexual crimes involving children, five were fired or resigned. Four others were referred to a personnel board or the Office of Security, which investigates classified leaks and is responsible for the safety of CIA facilities.
The outcome of one case — in which 10 child sexual abuse images were discovered on a CIA computer that had been left unattended — is unknown. The employee to whom that device was assigned said he switched computers while he was overseas. He denied using it to view such material.
In an eleventh case, the inspector general received a complaint in November 2016 that an employee used a government computer to view child sexual abuse images. Although the investigators couldn’t corroborate the allegation, they discovered that he had shown a “consistent interest and pattern of [redacted] conversations involving sexual activities between adults and minors.”
The inspector general alerted security officials and the Directorate of Science and Technology because the accusation raised “potential security and accountability issues.” Details of how the case was resolved, and any penalties the employee faced, are redacted.
Beyond the CIA’s handling of these cases, questions linger over why US attorneys chose not to charge anyone, even when they seemed to have significant evidence.
Prosecutors generally have wide discretion over whether to bring criminal charges. They can judge the evidence too old or weak, consider a crime victim’s desire to proceed with prosecution, and weigh the chances of convincing a jury.
“The occupation or employer of the suspect does not factor into that evaluation,” the spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia said. “While we cannot comment on the reasons why specific cases were declined, we do take very seriously any allegation that our prosecutors declined a potential case based on an improper assessment of the relevant factors.”
It appears that at least half of the sexual abuse investigations originated with a confession. The documents do not spell out the circumstances surrounding those statements, or whether they emerged during grueling “full-scope” polygraph examinations that can probe every part of CIA employees’ and contractors’ lives.
During those screenings, one former intelligence official told BuzzFeed News, it is not uncommon for a candidate to admit unlawful behavior in order to prove they aren’t lying — only later to realize that their statement might have sunk their chance to work for the agency and even put them in legal jeopardy.
Such statements are sent to the inspector general, which then tries to collect evidence proving the crime occurred. But that gives the subject time to delete or destroy evidence, said the former official.
That’s what happened in January 2010, when a CIA contractor logged into a chatroom using an agency IP address and solicited sex from an FBI agent posing as a child. The contractor acknowledged an obsession with child sexual abuse images, but by the time the inspector general obtained a search warrant and seized the man’s computer, someone had “removed the hard drives and thrown them away,” according to the reports.
Another CIA employee signed an affidavit admitting he used a government laptop to view photographs and videos of girls as young as 10 being abused by an “older guy.”
The employee acknowledged that he first began seeking child sexual abuse images while he was in college, and viewed as many as 1,400 while on assignment for the agency. He told CIA investigators that he was “truly sorry” but also said “he did not understand that it was a violation of agency policy to access child pornography until he took the Agency Information Security Course.”
When the inspector general examined the man’s computers, however, no such images were visible. A federal prosecutor declined to charge the man in “favor of administrative action” by the CIA. The personnel board’s recommendation is redacted.
But in several of the cases, prosecutors had plenty to go on.
During an investigation that ended in August 2009, an official with a security clearance acknowledged having sexual contact with two girls, ages 2 and 6, and downloading illicit images while working for the CIA. The inspector general started a broad inquiry and attempted to identify the victims.
The investigators found that he had “extensively” downloaded abuse material, such as 63 videos of children between 8 and 16. The man regularly used government Wi-Fi to download the material, he distributed it to others, and he brought the photos back into the US after he returned from a trip overseas.
Despite the admissions and the evidence that investigators found on his devices, prosecutors from the Eastern District of Virginia declined to take up a criminal case. They told the inspector general there were “taint issues,” a term that is sometimes used to refer to mishandled evidence. The attorneys also said that the girls in those videos had not been “previously identified child pornography victims,” making it harder to prove they were minors.
By contrast, in the only two cases known to have led to criminal charges, both parties were also accused of serious offenses related to classified information.
According to an Aug. 6, 2013, inspector general report, an investigation into a CIA contractor suspected of being in possession of child sexual abuse images turned up classified material stored on his personal hard drive and “numerous technical documents related to the Agency's systems” on his laptop. The contractor was fired and stripped of his security clearance. He later pleaded guilty to the child abuse charges and registered as a sex offender. The report says the contractor was sentenced, but the details, along with his name, were redacted.
In the other case, CIA software engineer Joshua Schulte was charged in 2018 with possession of child sexual abuse images as part of a much larger investigation into the largest leak of classified information in the agency’s history. Known as Vault 7 and published by WikiLeaks, the trove of documents revealed secret tools that the CIA used to hack into computers. It was prosecuted under the Espionage Act.
Schulte faces a separate trial on the child sexual abuse charges. He has pleaded not guilty. ●
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.
Contact Jason Leopold at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anthony Cormier is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. While working for the Tampa Bay Times, Cormier won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact Anthony Cormier at email@example.com.
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