WASHINGTON — Is Attorney General Roberto Gonzales under fire for prosecuting pornography?

Some administration critics say Gonzales fired eight U.S. attorneys as part of a Justice Department crackdown on obscenity. The firings sparked a political debacle for the Bush administration that has Gonzales fighting to keep his job.

“In a move popular with anti-porn groups and the religious right, Gonzales had made a renewed war on porn one of the top priorities of the Department of Justice,” wrote Mark Follman, in a Salon.com article that blames the firing of U.S. attorneys on a new federal crusade against porn.

But lax obscenity enforcement, said a former porn prosecutor for the Reagan administration, has resulted in unbridled availability of porn — on cell phones, computers, cable TV and in hotel rooms everywhere — that’s fundamentally changing American culture.

“Our children and our college students are consuming a steady diet of obscene material,” says Patrick Truman, an assistant attorney general under Ronald Reagan who headed the Child Exploitation and Obscenity section of the Department of Justice.

“The mainstream porn industry has been left to do pretty much whatever it wants,” he said. “Porn is now so pervasive that our college students don’t even know how to date, because pornography has conditioned young men to believe that they’re entitled to sexual services from women without the need for relationship. They’re on such a steady diet of porn that they can’t distinguish between love and sexual desire.”

Truman told the Register he and a small group of other lawyers concerned with the lax enforcement of obscenity laws met recently with Michael Mason, executive assistant director of the FBI, to express their concerns that no war on porn has been waged.

“No, we haven’t turned this tide of pornography back at all,” said Robert Peters, president of Morality in Media. “Very little has been done since the Reagan administration, and the other side is winning big.”

Jan LaRue, chief counsel for Concerned Women for America, wrote Feb. 26 in the organization’s online publication: “Anybody who keeps track of obscenity prosecutions knows the stats show that it’s not the ‘priority’ we’ve been told it is.”

Gonzales, aware of growing criticism that the administration has allowed porn to run amok, last year established the Justice Department’s Obscenity Prosecution Task Force and appointed veteran prosecutor Brent Ward to lead it. Justice Department officials declined to comment for this article.

“I am maintaining hope that with Brent Ward at the helm of this task force, things might improve,” said Peters. “Do I have delusions that we’ll put the major pornographers out of business by 2009? No. But I do think with the appointment of Brent Ward the Bush administration may be able to show the next administration that enforcing our obscenity laws is not impossible.”

Ward, a former U.S. attorney for Utah appointed by Reagan, began his work on the new task force by successfully prosecuting makers of “Girls Gone Wild” videos for failing to document the ages of young women featured in the shows.

Ward’s appointment has displeased defenders of porn as much as it has pleased Peters and other porn adversaries. It was Ward, in fact, whose actions led some in the mainstream press and thousands of bloggers to opine that the firing of U.S. attorneys was evidence of a renewed commitment to taking down the porn industry.

The Nation magazine published an article March 20 called “The Porn Plot Against Prosecutors.” It blamed Ward for much of the Reagan administration’s success in prosecuting pornographers, saying he was one of former Attorney General Edwin Meese’s “most fervent and earnest witnesses” in carrying out Reagan’s war against porn.

The Nation and other publications say a Sept. 20 e-mail by Ward indicates that the U.S. attorney firings are part of a renewed war against porn. The e-mail, sent to Kyle Sampson, Gonzalez’s chief of staff, reads:

“We have two U.S. attorneys who are unwilling to take good cases we have presented to them. They are Paul Charlton in Phoenix and Dan Bogden in Las Vegas. In light of the AG’s comments … to ‘kick butt and take names,’ what do you suggest I do?”

Despite the e-mail, Truman said the U.S. attorney firings had nothing to do with a crackdown on porn.

“That assertion is laughable to anyone who knows the inner workings of the Justice Department,” Truman said.

Shortly after his appointment as attorney general, Gonzalez announced that prosecution of pornography portraying consensual sex among adults would be “one of the top priorities” of the Justice Department. He signed off on an FBI memo that said prosecutors would focus mainly on pornography depicting “bestiality, urination, defecation, as well as sadistic and masochistic behavior.”

“That’s part of the problem,” Truman said. “The few cases that have been prosecuted involve extreme pornography, depicting violence, defecation or animals. Most people have no interest in this stuff, and it’s not the business the mainstream porn industry is in. By only pursuing extreme obscenity, the mainstream porn industry is given a green light. There’s this perception that anything other than extreme pornography is legal, and it’s not. The fact that it’s not being prosecuted does not make it legal.”

Truman said for the Department of Justice to have a substantial effect, it would need to go after cable TV and satellite TV giants, and most mainstream hotel chains. He said all have realized huge profits in porn, because a porn feature can be produced for $20,000 or less, yet it gets sold to the public for the same price as mainstream Hollywood films that cost tens of millions of dollars to produce.

“Almost all of the major hotel chains are offering hard-core pornography on the televisions in the rooms, and these cost a consumer the same as any movie,” Truman said. “A few years ago, it was soft-core pornography. Now, it’s full-fledged hard-core porn that violates the standards of almost every community in the United States. This is what happens when you don’t enforce the obscenity laws.”

Peters, of Morality in Media, said the Justice Department has taken on only about 15 obscenity cases under the Bush administration, and none of them has targeted the mainstream porn industry. Truman said the porn industry is “almost monolithic,” with most porn emanating from only about 50 major companies that could all be taken down.

The problem, said Truman, lies in a misperception among today’s federal prosecutors that winning porn cases is next to impossible, with the ACLU and other groups claiming that pornography is protected speech under the First Amendment. He said prosecutors believe that if millions of adults are consuming porn, it’s difficult to prove that the material violates community standards — which the Supreme Court has said it must do to violate obscenity laws.

“But it’s not difficult,” Truman said, speaking about the 20 cases he was involved in. “In four years in the Reagan administration, I never lost a single jury trial in which we were out to prove that a purveyor of porn violated the community standard. You show the jury the material in question and ask ‘does this meet the community standard?’ They say No every time, even if they themselves look at porn.

“They say No because they wouldn’t be seen looking at it on a bus, or in some other public venue. They wouldn’t show it to their houseguests. Most porn violates community standards, that makes it illegal, and it’s easy to prove.”

Wayne Laugesen is based in

Boulder, Colorado.