The Justice department lags in a strategy required by law

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Maybe it’s lack of leadership. Or lack of attention. But the Justice Department has failed on a critical congressional mandate, that’s according to the Government Accountability Office. Justice has been required to update a national strategy to deal with exploitation of children every two years. For what has actually happened, the Federal Drive turned to the GAO’s...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Maybe it’s lack of leadership. Or lack of attention. But the Justice Department has failed on a critical congressional mandate, that’s according to the Government Accountability Office. Justice has been required to update a national strategy to deal with exploitation of children every two years. For what has actually happened, the Federal Drive turned to the GAO’s director of Homeland Security and Justice issues, Gretta Goodwin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin
This report states that since 2008, Justice has had to implement this national strategy and update it every two years and what have they actually done?

Gretta Goodwin
They are to update it every two years. But what we found in our work is that they’ve only updated it twice. So the act was put out in 2008. And they didn’t make their first update until 2010. And then their next update was six years later, in 2016. It’s 2022 now, and so they haven’t had any new updates since the last one in 2016.

Tom Temin
And this strategy does what what’s the basic purpose of it in the first place?

Gretta Goodwin
So it has a number of requirements for DOJ to address the exploitation of children, and they’re supposed to develop a strategy and find a way to implement it. And you know, the current strategy is called DOJ’s National Strategy. They’re also required to designate a senior official who will be responsible for that strategy. And what we found is there’s been no permanent senior official responsible for the strategy. So it lacks leadership. They’re also required to include goals, do a trend assessment to get a better understanding for kind of where the technology is and what some of the concerns are. And to date, as we mentioned, DOJ’s only updated the strategy twice, and they don’t have a permanent director to oversee everything.

Tom Temin
Right. You state that in 14 years, nine detailees have rotated through the National Coordinator position, and Congress wants that to be a permanent position.

Gretta Goodwin
That’s correct. Because you need someone at the top of this strateg to provide continuity to provide leadership and just to provide the knowledge base and to have a better understanding of what the concerns are. As we noted in our report, the technology is changing at lightning speed, and DOJ and you know, as they’re developing this strategy, you know, how can they ensure that they’re on top of the technology that they’re paying attention to the pace of the increase in the technology?

Tom Temin
And what about Homeland Security? Does that have a part in this or any other units of the federal government?

Gretta Goodwin
They do. So the Department of Justice is to partner with some of the other agencies to get a sense for what they’re doing also to draw on some of their expertise. The Department of Homeland Security has a component within their agency that deals with Homeland Security Investigations, otherwise known as HSI. And so DOJ partnering with other components like that would better help them be prepared to address some of these issues.

Tom Temin
Because this seems like a pretty important statutory requirement. And as you point out, Congress mandated this in a law back in 2008, what’s your sense of what’s going on in Justice that they haven’t really gotten around to staffing it and doing the updates they require.

Gretta Goodwin
So when we reached out to Department of Justice, we provided them a draft copy of the report, as you know that they did not respond, they did not provide an official response to our recommendation. So they have pretty much remained silent on the recommendation that we made. And our recommendation is for them, to find ways to better coordinate to find ways to better ensure that they are managing the concerns around the online exploitation of children. What they have provided to us is that it is a priority, and that they are you know, doing things have things in place have strategies in place to help address this. But as we note, the national strategy is currently six years old, and there is no director. So that speaks to a lack of preparedness for for them being able to address this issue.

Tom Temin
We’re speaking with Gretta Goodwin, she’s director of Homeland Security and Justice issues at the Government Accountability Office. And I would think if nothing else, the rise of tick TikTok would spark a update in the policy and in the strategy, because that was not so much of a factor six years ago. Now, it’s a national security concern on many fronts, and including the kind of stuff let’s say that it delivers to young minds.

Gretta Goodwin
Absolutely, Tom, and, you know, one of the 19 components of this strategy is for the Department of Justice to do a future trend assessment. And so in 2008, there was no TikTok right, there was no TikTok some of the online gaming platforms didn’t exist. And what we know is through, you know, different types of social media platforms and activities. We know that the online exploitation is increasing when we spoke to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. We learned from them that in 2021, they received 29.4 million reports of suspected child exploitation. That’s an increase of 35% from 2020. So that tells you that this technology is increasing that tells you that the exploitation is increasing. And in order for DOJ to remain on top of these things, they really do need to have the strategy in place, and to have a coordinator who is overseeing and you know, ensuring that things are being implemented properly.

Tom Temin
And what can be some of the consequences of online exploitation, that is children meeting with people who are really sexual predators, for example, or giving up personal information such that the families can be identified, and people can do things to families. That’s the type of thing we’re talking about.

Gretta Goodwin
Yeah, so the type of things we discuss, and we, you know, in our report, and what we learned when we were doing this work, is you know, that the platforms allow for grooming, or predator will come online, and we’ll be in a conversation with a child, often on some of these online gaming platforms. And so they will be grooming the child to get them to the point where they’re, as they start asking for inappropriate photographs. And they will, they would, you know, child would send the photograph. And then the predator would also engage in what they call sextortion, where they would, they would either threaten or try to blackmail the child to either send a photograph or to send more explicit types of photographs. And so this is something that, you know, if the Department of Justice, had the strategy in place, and had a national director to help oversee it, and had the ability to pay attention to these future trends, that would be really helpful. Because we know that as these, as these online gaming platforms are increasing, we all know that our children are playing them. And often they’re playing them right in front of the parents, this is how important the issue is, because your child could be playing a game in front of you, they’ve got their headphones on, they’re, you know, playing the game, there’s a predator on the other end of that game that you may not know about, all you know is that your child is playing game in conversation with someone that someone may be a predator.

Tom Temin
And it’s right there under your own roof without your knowledge.

Gretta Goodwin
Exactly sometimes in the same room with, the parents are in the same room when the children are playing these online games.

Tom Temin
Now, it is also fair to say that the FBI does pursue this kind of thing they plant, you know, honey pots to try to attract the predators and this kind of thing. And every so often you hear about a celebrated case. So it’s wouldn’t be quite right to say the Justice Department doesn’t do anything about it.

Gretta Goodwin
That’s correct. They are very involved. They are responsible for the investigations and the prosecutions. And so we’re not saying that they aren’t doing anything. But we are saying that according to the Protect our Children Act of 2008, there are certain things that need to be in place, and DOJ has not, has not put those things in place. We’re, what, 14 years later. And we’re still asking for DOJ to do what is required of them under this act from 2008.

Tom Temin
And the word strategy has specific meaning because strategies in the federal context have elements 19 elements for a strategy, and the Justice Department has not even in the strategy it does have doesn’t have all 19 elements.

Gretta Goodwin
That’s correct. That’s correct. They only have they have less than half of the 19 elements currently. And so we’re asking them to basically do what is required under the act. That would not address the issue in and of itself. But it’s a way to start for them to start addressing the issue. Because another thing that we learned about some of the challenges that DOJ faces, is you know, the pace of the technology, keeping up with the pace of that ensuring that they have trained investigators trained law enforcement officials, so that they know kind of they’re keeping up in terms of what the platforms are, where the technology is going. So it’s very important that they are on top of those things. And they did share, when we talked with the Department of Justice, they talked about that some of their challenges, were keeping up with the pace of the technology, ensuring that they had a trained workforce.

Tom Temin
Right. So now you need a specific response to this recommendation, though, that you’re still waiting?

Gretta Goodwin
Well, I wouldn’t say that we were waiting, you know, we issued the report, they did not respond to the recommendation. So it’s, it’s there, and you are free to ask them what their response would be to our recommendation. But we provided a copy of the report to them. And in keeping with our protocols with our with the agencies we work with. We allow for them to review the report and provide comments and respond to our recommendation and they have not.

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