Operation Torpedo: Fed Tactics on Trial in Porn Case


The FBI is on trial, caught in the middle of allegations that it stepped out of bounds by sending what was essentially a virus to unsuspecting computer users. Operation Torpedo originated out of computers in Bellevue.

One of the targeted websites had 10,000 images of child pornography. It had 5,600 members and 24,000 postings on the message boards with categories that include babies and teenage girls.

At issue in the suppression hearing is how the government collected the IP addresses and whether the rules of search warrants were followed.

Over the course of the day, 17 attorneys for 14 defendants filed into a courtroom as local FBI representatives explained how the Bureau tracked down dozens of child pornography suspects.

It's a case that has spanned the globe. Servers were seized in the Netherlands and dozens of arrests were made in the United States.

Law enforcement tracked down people online who, investigators say, had done their homework in trying to remain anonymous.

The FBI identified 25 users from Utah to Pennsylvania and states all over the country.

The key break in the case started in Sarpy County - in Bellevue. In November of 2012, FBI agents in Omaha arrested Aaron McGrath. From a server farm in Bellevue, he served as administrator of three websites that advertised and distributed child pornography.

The sites were only available through an anonymous network called TOR, where it was easy for users to cover their tracks online.

After his arrest, the FBI kept Aaron McGrath's child porn websites running and planted their own computer code, like a virus. The feds had never used this technique before the Bellevue case.

When someone clicked the link to those websites, the virus would navigate the layers of secrecy and anonymity so the FBI could trace and pinpoint the specific computers where child pornography was accessed. That search warrant process is under fire in federal court.

Glenn Shapiro represents a child porn suspect from Utah and Shapiro said, “It doesn't matter if it's jaywalking, murder, child porn or anything in between. It’s for protection of all society that the rules are followed by everybody."

New world technology has met old world rules. Federal Judge Thomas Thalken will decide if the FBI met the rules of law when it came to sending the virus to those computers. If not, any evidence collected from the search warrants would be inadmissible.

While the government operated the Bellevue child porn sites for three weeks in 2012, the actual raids of people's homes and seizure of computers didn't happen until four months later -- April 2013.

Attorneys are questioning whether the feds followed what's known as the 30-day standard of notification.

Aaron McGrath, the Omaha man who administered the websites, is serving a 20-year sentence in federal prison.


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