Senator Joni Ernst presses FBI over female staff photos used in sex-trafficking probes


WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 10: Sen. Joni Ernst (R- IA) listens during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 10, 2021 in Washington, DC. The hearing was held to discuss the Defense Department’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposal. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Iowa Senator Joni Ernst on Thursday pressed the FBI for details after the Justice Department’s internal watchdog revealed that FBI agents were using “provocative” photos of female office staff as bait in sex-trafficking investigations.

In a letter to FBI Director Chris Wray, Ernst, who is a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence, said the “careless actions” of the agents who asked female staff to pose for photos in the undercover stings amounted to “crimes” that could put those women in danger.

“Due to the reckless actions of these special agents and the indifference of the FBI, there is no way of knowing how many times these images have been downloaded, copied, or further shared across the internet,” wrote Ernst, a Republican.

A FBI spokeswoman confirmed receiving the letter, but declined to comment further.

On Aug. 2, Inspector General Michael Horowitz revealed his office has been investigating a special agent who asked female office support staff to pose as minors and sex workers to assist with undercover sex-trafficking operations.

The agent allegedly told them not to tell their bosses about their participation, and never obtained their written consent.

In the course of that investigation, the inspector general’s office discovered that other agents had also used female staff photos in similar operations, and that the FBI had no policy in place concerning the use of photos of non-certified undercover staff in operations.

The FBI in its response to the report said it would evaluate and update its policies, and said the Office of Professional Responsibility was reviewing the conduct of the agent at the heart of the probe.

Ernst, in her letter, said she wanted to know what resources were being provided to the women to help get their photos scrubbed from the internet, how many agents had engaged in similar conduct, and what other steps the FBI was taking to address the concerns laid out in Horowitz’s report.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Grant McCool

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2021. 

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