A federal judge in Tacoma, Wa., concluded that FBI agents who secretly took over and ran a child-pornography website last year acted outrageously, but he stopped short of suppressing evidence or dismissing indictments again three Washington men caught up in the sting, the Seattle Times reports. U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan’s findings were a hollow victory for the three who argued that federal agents had broken the law and acted immorally in their attempts to identify and prosecute visitors to a dark-web child-porn bulletin board called “The Playpen.” The defendants asked to have their cases thrown out.
The three, David Tippens, Gerald Lesan and Bruce Lornette, are among at least five Washington men swept up in the government’s massive sting operation known as “Operation Pacifier.” All are charged with possession of child pornography for viewing and downloading explicit videos and photos of children being raped and molested. Each faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. More than 200 people nationwide have been charged in the sting operation, which involved the FBI using secret software to exploit a vulnerability in the Tor Browser, which is used to navigate the dark web anonymously. The browser encrypts and routes internet traffic through thousands of other computers to hide the identity of a user. One of the key allegations is that the FBI violated the law by using a single search warrant obtained in Virginia to gather information from as many as 100,000 computer users in 120 different countries. Federal statutes require search warrants be obtained from a judge in the district in which the crime allegedly occurred.