Is there some secret FBI training facility where they teach agents how to lurk on the Internet, impersonating 13-year-old girls? Hardly a day goes by that you don’t read about some 46-year-old insurance adjuster (they’re always in their 40s, and they’re always from the suburbs) getting busted for arranging a meeting with Tiffany the free-spirited eighth-grader, who turns out to be, alas, Walter the hatchet-faced special agent. When did this become a full-time al Qaida-level sting operation? There must be a boiler room somewhere in Virginia with dozens of agents all logging on to the “Lolitas 4 U” Web site and getting in touch with their Inner Barbie. (Question: why do they never impersonate adolescent BOYS?) Here’s what’s strange to me about the arrests, though. They’re almost always guys with no previous criminal record. I mean, it would be one thing if the agents were getting propositioned by hard-core child molesters with felony rap sheets. Instead, it’s usually some lonely guy who surfed in and thought he got lucky with a jailbait high school girl who turns out to be jail without the bait. The official federal charge is “using the Internet to entice sex from a minor.” (Yes, that’s a crime all by itself. It’s a modern version of the old “crossing state lines for immoral purposes.” The difference in this case is that the guy is crossing imaginary lines with the equivalent of a blow-up party doll.) But you have to ask yourself, after looking at the quality of these busts, whether the FBI might not be creating its own sex market here. I mean, I’m sure there’s ONE 13-year-old girl, somewhere, who’s trolling the net, searching for the 46-year-old married insurance adjuster of her dreams. Hopefully we’ll get her to therapy soon. But these guys who have this particular little-girl fetish must think they’ve stumbled into a paradise of sexual options normally not found outside Patpong Road in Bangkok. “What! Seven oversexed teenage girls right here in my own neighborhood! How high school has changed!” Meanwhile, all seven are FBI agents. So the guy chats for a while. Yeah, he loves Britney Spears. Yeah, he wants to hear all about how her social studies teacher is such a doofus. And then I would assume that the FBI agents are trained to throw in a few titillating enticements that fall just this side of entrapment. Stephanie talks about the sleepover pajama party with her girlfriends. Heather drops a line about how hot she thinks Tom Cruise is, because she likes older men. One foolproof technique is for Courtney to mention that she made the cheerleading squad. This could possibly avoid the sticky question of whether to send an e-mail photo or not — although they DO fake up photos. In one recent case, the girl sounded too good to be true, so the potential felon-on-the-hook wrote, “Are you a police officer or do you work for any law enforcement agency?” The FBI agent, Emily Vacher, flat out lied and said she wasn’t. (This would seem like a place where we ARE verging into entrapment.) Then the agent wrote: “they don’t let 9th graders in the CIA!!!!!” The guy eventually got busted, of course. Married, two children, government job, life ruined. All because the agent knew how to use those pubescent exclamation points. The other strange thing about all these busts is that the guys almost never go to trial. They all plead guilty. Since they say they’re guilty, I have to assume that they ARE guilty, but it raises the question of whether they plea out just to avoid having all their stupid late-night e-mail messages published in the newspaper, or having to register with the “Megan’s Law” authorities the rest of their lives. After all, it would take quite a bit of evidence to PROVE that someone intended to have sex with an imaginary girl. He would probably have to send a message saying, “I think you really are 14 years old and I want sex with you anyway.” I would be surprised if any of them were that forward, even if they had it on their minds. And then you get into the question of how the idea got into their minds in the first place. Was it placed there by the girl — who is, of course, NOT a girl? Look at it this way. In simpler times, the only guys arrested for POTENTIAL molestation were the ones who drove up to the schoolyard, opened the door of their car, and asked the little kids if they wanted candy. If the kid got in the car, they would usually be tried on kidnapping charges, not sex charges. In other words, they had to do some action that was, in and of itself, a crime against the child. So the real-life equivalent to these Internet stings would be having an FBI agent who could pass for 13 years old — and then arresting the guy as soon as he said, “Would you like some candy?” The problem is, this is not a crime. As far as I know, it’s not a crime simply to MEET with a 13-year-old, or to offer candy to a 13-year-old, or to plan a meeting with a 13-year-old, so the real life version wouldn’t hold up in court. The question in these Internet cases is: What is the actual criminal act? He’s talking to a cyber-fantasy person designed to catch him in the first place, and his imagination could be going in all kinds of directions, but we don’t really know what his intentions are unless he specifically says, “I want to take you to a motel room and have sex with you.” And even if he says that, there’s NO VICTIM. It’s a system set up to catch guys with way too much time on their hands. If you think about a bank robbery but never actually carry it out, should the full force of the law come down on you? One reason they probably never go to trial is that they figure that, even if they didn’t cross the line into soliciting sex with a minor — or, in this case, an imaginary minor — the jury is going to be loaded up with alarmed parents who will think, “Well, he must have been up to SOMETHING.” It would be tough to get up on the stand and say, “Well, I was researching a book on cheerleaders.” Even if he was honest and said, “Well, I kind of got carried away by my fantasies — it was one of those Internet deals,” it’s unlikely that a middle-class jury would sympathize with THOSE particular fantasies. In other words, he is going to be convicted because they’ll know he was thinking about it. But that’s the part that troubles me. Thinking about it is not doing it. Meeting with a girl is not going through with it. Even in prostitution stings, where you have a real live person involved, you have to do or say something indicating that you’re about to commit a criminal act IN THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE. And those guys generally get sent to hookers-are-bad re-education classes, even when they’re guilty. These Internet guys, on the other hand, never recover. They’re literally jailed for their thoughts. I believe there’s a word for that: Orwellian. They teach it in the eighth grade. ”Joe Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his Web site at” http://www.joebobbriggs.com ”Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.” Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.