Spanberger, Schatz, Murkowski, Wagner to Defense Secretary: Fight Online Child Sexual Exploitation, Protect Vulnerable Children & Punish Offenders

Bipartisan, Bicameral Group Urge DoD to Implement New Law, Investigate Cases of Exploitation

HENRICO, V.A. —U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-VA-07), U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Lisa Murkowsi (R-Alaska), and U.S. Representative Anne Wagner (R-MO-02) are calling on U.S. Department of Defense Secretary Mark Esper to provide updates on how the Defense Department (DoD) is preventing and combating child sexual exploitation.

Their call comes eight months after Spanberger’s legislation to fight online child exploitation on the DoD’s network was signed into law by the President as Section 550D of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 (NDAA). The legislation was co-led by Spanberger, Schatz, Murkowski, and then-U.S. Representative Mark Meadows (R-NC-11).

“It is imperative that DoD fully implement Section 550D and begin the necessary work of ending child sexual exploitation,” said Spanberger and her colleagues. “The timely implementation of these provisions is critical to ensure that all available federal government resources are being delivered to protect children and combat the perpetuation and sharing of inappropriate content.”

Last year, close to 70 million online images and videos of child sexual abuse material were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline. And in 2018, the DoD’s network was ranked 19th out of 2,891 networks nationwide by the National Criminal Justice Training Center when it came to peer-to-peer file trading of child pornography. Before the Section 550D of the NDAA became law, DoD lacked the training and law enforcement tools for the DoD to take on child sexual exploitation.

Spanberger’s End National Defense (END) Network Abuse Act directs DoD to train military investigators on the use of technologies, tools, and techniques, including digital forensics, to enhance their ability to detect and combat child sexual exploitation. Specifically, the bill would upgrade the training and technical capacity of military criminal investigative organizations to confront the misuse of DoD computers, facilities, and equipment to access and trade child pornography.

Additionally, the NDAA requires DoD to collaborate with federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies on issues relating to child sexual exploitation, including by participating in specialized task forces and establishing cooperative agreements to facilitate co-training and collaboration.

The full letter is available here, and the full letter text is also below:

Dear Secretary Esper,

We write to request a briefing with updates on the status of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) implementation of Section 550D of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (NDAA) (P.L. 116-92). This provision directs DoD to enhance the capability of military criminal investigative organizations to prevent and combat child sexual exploitation.

We are seeing a disturbingly sharp increase in peer-to-peer sharing of child pornography images and videos online.  A New York Times investigation reported that tech companies alone flagged over 45 million images and videos as child sexual abuse and exploitation.  DoD’s initiative to combat child exploitation is an important step in closing the gap in training and expertise within the federal government. 

Section 550D of the NDAA directs DoD to work with internal and external functional experts to train the personnel of military criminal investigative organizations across the department.  DoD must train personnel on this use of technologies, tools, and techniques, including digital forensics, to enhance the investigation of child sexual exploitation.  DoD must also train personnel, in partnership and coordination with highly qualified national child protection organizations with demonstrated expertise, to conduct evidence-based forensic interviewing of child victims, and the referral of child victims for trauma-informed mental and medical health care, and other treatment and support services. 

Additionally, the NDAA requires DoD to collaborate with federal, state, local, tribal, and other civilian law enforcement agencies on issues relating to child sexual exploitation, including by participating in specialized task forces, establishing cooperative agreements to facilitate cotraining and collaboration with such agencies.  DoD must establish a streamlined process for the referral of child sexual exploitation cases to other agencies and jurisdictions.  Furthermore, DoD must assist in educating the military community on the prevention of and response to child sexual exploitation.  

This directive was also echoed by a February 2020 Government Accountability Office report on guidance and collaboration needed to improve the department’s tracking and response to child abuse.  The timely implementation of these provisions is critical to ensure that all available federal government resources are being delivered to protect children and combat the perpetuation and sharing of inappropriate content.   

It is imperative that DoD fully implement Section 550D and begin the necessary work of ending child sexual exploitation.  Thank you for your attention to our request, and we look forward to your written response.

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