U.S. law enforcement agencies have arrested 61 people and rescued 11 children as part of the larger takedown of a far-reaching global child pornography ring, Attorney General Michael Mukasey announced Friday.
Mukasey said the international law enforcement effort started after a "horrible" discovery in 2006: Australian authorities discovered a child abuse video depicting a father who had been "sexually abusing his young daughters and producing images of that abuse."
The video had been widely distributed online in closed Internet forums and servers that authorities discovered.
Authorities arrested the father, identified only as a Belgian national, about a month after the discovery of the video.
The man allegedly had large amounts of child pornography in his possession, and had allegedly enlisted the services of an Italian photographer whom officials said documented the sexual abuse and added the documentation to as many as seven Web sites.
The Italian suspect, who largely operated out of Ukraine, sold those images and those of many other child victims through the sites, the Justice Department said.
Customers in 30 countries, including the United States, patronized the site, officials said.
Authorities charged American John Price in the case last year, but he committed suicide before the case went to trial.
Price allegedly exchanged more than 800 e-mails with the Italian. FBI and US Postal Service Investigators also said they found thousands of images of child pornography and more than 40 computers and disk drives in his home.
Worldwide, more than 170 individuals have been arrested as the result of the investigation.
"That one case led to one of the largest ever transnational enforcement efforts against the Web of Internet-based child pornography trading rings," Mukasey said.
Mukasey said the 11 children identified by law enforcement as being victims in the United States have now "been given the chance to start their lives over in an environment that's free from that kind of abuse." The children ranged in age from three to 13.
"Our international counterparts have identified many more, and have taken the same kind of action in their own countries," he added.
"The members of this network of predators shared photos, stories of abuse of innocent children, and exchanged tips on how to evade detection," the attorney general said. "They tried to hide in what they hoped was the anonymity of the Internet."
Flanked by other U.S. officials and others from France, the Czech Republic and the European Union, the attorney general said the investigation, dubbed Operation Koala internationally and Operation Joint Hammer in the United States, branched out across Europe and the United States.
The foreign officials were in Washington for a ministerial meeting that covered visa waiver agreements, airline passenger data privacy issues, counterterrorism other cross-border matters.
Mukasey noted that the investigation is the "first of its kind," involving every major U.S. agency that pursues child exploitation cases, as well as EU law enforcement organization Europol, the EU international organized crime agency Eurojust and the European Union.
He said he expects more arrests to come in this country as authorities continue to track down leads.
Mukasey said that through programs such as the Justice Department's Project Safe Childhood, prosecutions of crimes related to child exploitation have jumped more than 30 percent in the past two years.