Book Review – Manufacturing Criminals, 2nd Edition: Wiretapping and Planting Evidence

Bonnie Burkhardt, Manufacturing Criminals, 2nd Edition: Wiretapping and Planting Evidence. Independently published, 2024. 504 pp. $25





When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.

—Bertolt Brecht

The exception is more important than the rule.
The exception is more interesting than the norm.
The norm proves nothing; the exception proves everything.
The rule lives only from the exception.

—Carl Schmitt

In Manufacturing Criminals: Fourth Amendment Decay in the Electronic Age, Bonnie Burkhardt has taken aim at one of the most powerful, profitable, and manipulative criminal organizations in the United States, documenting decades of federal violations committed against U.S. citizens. This organization is the “Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force” (ICAC), and it acts with the full support of the American government. In direct opposition to the Fourth Amendment, detectives impersonate minors over the internet, illegally intercept private communications, “misplace” evidence relevant to the defense, and unearth people’s private identities through illegitimate means. In other circumstances, such unlawful police tactics would lead to the immediate suppression of evidence. However, this is not an issue for the ICAC which brags about its 100% conviction rate. How has the ICAC gotten away with this for so long, and is Burkhardt the “meddling kid” who will finally expose these injustices?

The Author

Bonnie Burkhardt has top security clearance and 35-plus years of experience analyzing signals for the United States Department of Defense. She has also taken over 100 classes on privacy laws and the proper way to do her job in alignment with the Fourth Amendment. This is why she was so taken aback when by happenstance she decided to look over the case of a friend of the family (called “JJJJJ” for anonymity) who was targeted in one of these sting operations. Sometime later, she discovered that the husband of a woman at her church, HHHHH, was in jail for the same offense. Upon closer inspection, she discovered that the “fishy” circumstances of each case were eerily similar, involving entrapment and illegal interception of communication.

Since knowing that a felony has been committed and not reporting it is a crime itself, Burkhardt did her duty as a citizen and contacted the Virginia Attorney General, Mark Herring, the Stafford County Sheriff’s Department, and the Virginia State Police. Additionally, every 3-6 months she would contact the FBI to present her findings on Fourth Amendment violations. All of this was to no avail. Routinely, she was ignored, if not shouted at. Often she was told to report this information to some other organization, though everywhere she turned her words fell on deaf ears and her one-inch thick binders of meticulously annotated court documents went unopened. This book, now in its second edition, is Burkhardt’s final appeal to the court of public opinion. The second edition of Manufacturing Criminals contains five new chapters, detailing more about her unproductive appeals to the FBI, the illegal monitoring of hash codes (see below), the history of the ICAC, and the widespread tampering of evidence. It also offers additional information on wiretapping, peer-to-peer software, and case law, as well as excerpts from ICAC training manuals and court documents (loc. 153-222).


The ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force) was founded in Virginia in 1998 by Bedford County Sheriff Mike Brown. In his 1995 campaign announcement for the Republican nomination, Brown promised to “take Bedford County back to the Dark Ages.” In 2000, Sheriff Brown was selected to serve on the Crime Technology Initiative Forum by Democrat Attorney General Janet Reno (loc. 240-275) [1].

Burkhardt finds it surprising that Reno did not do a thorough investigation into the legality of Brown’s new techniques for catching “predators,” though perhaps this is not so coincidental. Janet Reno was an aggressive crusader against what she believed was “child sexual abuse,” pioneering the “Miami Method” of investigation during her career as a state attorney. The Miami Method, and similar techniques, were used widely during the “Satanic ritual abuse” panics of the 1980s, and it involved coercively interrogating prepubescent children for extended periods of time until they finally made an accusation—usually false and resulting in acquittals. Using this technique, Reno had leveled accusations of sexual abuse against numerous people, including a 14-year-old boy (Nathan & Snedeker, 1995). Later as attorney general, during the standoff in Waco, Texas between Texas law enforcement and the religious sect, the “Branch Davidians,” she resisted sieging the compound until she heard a rumor that the leader David Koresh was having sex with teenage girls. 76 people including 25 children died in the assault and fire that ensued (ibid, p. 716-16).

With the authority granted to him by Reno and others, Brown grew the ICAC into a national organization receiving billions in federal grants, plus millions more from state and local. Like most organizations related to criminal justice, the ICAC’s continued eligibility for funds is dependent on how many “bad guys” it locks up, so its agents are highly motivated to find people on the internet committing sex crimes with a minor (loc. 275). Unfortunately for them, these are few and far between, so they need to get creative.

Typically, investigators will spend hours at a computer impersonating a teenager. Investigators receive detailed training on how to maintain consistency in their fictional characters, keeping track of everything from their hobbies to their menstrual cycles, in a sort of distorted version of the video game The Sims. Then, they enter online chat rooms and dating sites. Note that these sites are explicitly for adults only, so there is no reason for them to believe that anyone on these sites is there searching for minors (loc. 380, 388, 399). Investigators then initiate conversations with strangers, usually men, who are under the impression that they are chatting with an adult. It is only after a rapport has been developed that investigators will mention casually that they are a teenager. Hence, in short, investigators are adults impersonating minors, who, in turn, are impersonating adults. The moment the investigators reveal their fake “true” age, the trap has been set.

However, if the prey is not taking the bait, investigators do not move on to another target. Instead, they will actively pressure the people on these sites to respond in sexually explicit ways by feigning desperation, playing on their guilt, and sometimes badgering a single person for years until they respond in a way that could have them prosecuted for soliciting a minor (loc. 344-363, 2668). In other circumstances, investigators could be accused of sexual harassment for the ways they aggressively come on to random men on the internet, not relenting until their targets reciprocate their advances. Then, once in court, every individual message with a “naughty” overtone is counted as a separate offense in a process called “stacking charges”, easily leading to prison sentences of decades (or centuries) (loc. 1392, 2057, 2091).

Rarely does any of this background information come out in court, as these cases rarely go to trial. Suspects are usually coerced into accepting a plea deal, whether or not they were informed that plea deals cannot be overturned (loc. 311-327). Public defenders usually have dozens of clients at a time and the prosecution often takes control of the case from beginning to end [2]. All the court sees are the messages the suspects sent to a person who he believed was a teenager. But were all of these messages sent after the suspect discovered that the person he was communicating with was a teenager? That is yet another point of contention. According to Burkhardt, there is ample reason to believe the suspects’ devices were tampered with after they were taken into evidence. Protocol for handling electronic evidence—such as turning on airplane mode and placing the device in a “Radio Frequency shielded enclosure”— is not always followed and there are telltale signs that at least on some devices, messages were backdated to an earlier time, when the detectives wanted the crime to have occurred. In other words, it could be made to seem that certain messages were sent while the defendant believed he was communicating with a legal adult (loc. 4871, 4981-5013, 5050-5093).

Case Studies

Below is one case study which Burkhardt describes in her book, summarized for brevity.

Commonwealth V. Achin

Detective BBB of Fairfax, Virginia was conducting an ICAC sting operation. Using the photo of a younger officer (over 18), Det. BBB assumed the persona of “Alex VA,” and made a profile on the adult dating site Grindr. Alex VA then began sending messages to Achin and they began exchanging small talk. Then, “Alex VA” revealed to Achin that he was 15 years old. Realizing that he was speaking to someone underage, Achin reported Alex VA to Grindr system administrators, and Alex VA’s profile was suspended. Not deterred, Det. BBB made another profile with another photo, this time named simply “Alex.” Having no reason to believe they were the same person, Achin and Alex began communicating. Soon, however, Achin became suspicious that “Alex” and “Alex VA” were the same person, so he requested a phone call to clear up the matter. Det. BBB then recruited another officer with a younger-sounding voice to play the role of Alex on the phone. Achin thought that Alex/Alex VA might have been in some kind of trouble—that perhaps he was being trafficked, so Achin requested they meet in a public place. This was all that the police needed to make an arrest (loc. 892-1023).

From beginning to end, this investigation was illegal. Det. BBB targeted Achin at random, with no probable cause, took on the persona of an imaginary person, and intercepted Achin’s private communications. In court, Achin’s defense attorney was questioning Det. BBB on the legality of his investigation, particularly as to whether or not he obtained a warrant to investigate Achin in the first place. At that point, the prosecution objected on the grounds of relevance:

Court: What is the relevance?

Defense: Your honor, in looking at the statutes, there are requirements for warrants, especially he’s indicated that they’re recording these conversations…and that’s why I’m asking whether or not he has secured a warrant as required under 19.2…

Court: So, I followed you all the way to your conclusion, but I still don’t understand how it would be relevant what other detectives did.

Defense: Well, your honor, one of the code sections requires that a warrant be obtained from the governor through the Attorney General’s office, and I was trying to narrow it down to whether or not he ever secured a warrant from the General’s office to do so. There’s other aspects of this that I’ll…

Court: Okay. I’m going to sustain the objection. I don’t think it’s relevant. Next question (loc. 1069-1091).

Importantly, all of the “lewd” messages which Achin sent were only sent during the time he believed he was chatting with a legal adult, though to prove this the defense needed a message history with a timeline, something which the prosecution did not provide. Burkhardt tried to help Achin by downloading the text message history from his service provider, and the timestamps on each message showed that Achin believed he was speaking to an adult. However, this evidence was disallowed as Burkhardt—despite having Top Secret security clearance and 35 years of experience in software engineering—was deemed unqualified to be an “expert witness” because she did not work for Verizon (loc. 1111). Achin was found guilty in a bench trial, and the police department publicly announced his conviction without context, destroying his reputation.

Other cases that Burkhardt discusses include JJJJJ’s. JJJJJ was communicating with a teenage boy via text. Though nothing in this conversation was illegal, when his parents found out, they brought his phone to the police. Instead of advising the boy to cut off communications, or warning JJJJJ that he was playing with fire, Det. NNN instead chose to deescalate the situation by taking the youths phone and impersonate him over text. Det. NNN continued communications with JJJJJ, directing the conversation until he gathered enough evidence to bring JJJJJ into court (loc. 1179-1200). To create the illusion that this was a legitimate investigation, the police asked the boy’s parents to sign a form provided by the ICAC for “Consent to Assume Online Presence.” However, such a document has no actual legal validity. Burkhardt claims that this is the same as getting written permission from a friend to rob a bank (loc. 1168-1179).

Det. NNN, using the boy’s cell phone, induced JJJJJ to send messages that were in violation of Va. Code 18.2-374.3, “Use of communications systems to facilitate certain offenses involving children.” According to this statute, “children” refers to any person below 15 years of age. However, JJJJJ did not know the actual age of the boy, as this never came up in their conversation, though as some of the messages were “accidentally” deleted, this could not be proven. When the prosecutor was asked why she wanted JJJJJ charged for a crime involving a minor under 15, even when she had no evidence that JJJJJ was aware of his exact age, she stated simply that she wanted to have him sent to prison for longer. JJJJJ is serving his tenth year in prison. The prosecutor is now Assistant General Counsel to the FBI (loc. 1200, 1221).

Similarly, HHHHH was approached online on a Yahoo chat room. Yahoo has been more than happy to allow the federal government to monitor communications on its platform for anything “of interest.” Det. WWW assumed the persona of a 14-year-old girl named “Heather Boon,” and messaged HHHHH, who discontinued their conversation after he learned of her age. That was the end of it for approximately one year until Det. WWW decided to try again. Since the Yahoo chat room had shut down during that time, Det. WWW messaged HHHHH privately. Still undercover as the precocious 14-year-old girl, Heather, Det. WWW acted insulted when HHHHH claimed he didn’t remember her and provocatively asked HHHHH to meet her in person four to six times. Eventually, Det. WWW managed to elicit responses lewd enough to authorize an arrest (loc. 2654).

HHHHH was picked at random and hunted for three years until he finally said something which legitimized his prosecution. The investigation took so long that the fictional character “Heather” would have aged by so much that the “crimes” for which HHHHH were charged would no longer be crimes or would be somewhat less serious. To solve this problem, the prosecution backdated several messages by years, making them appear to have been sent at a much earlier time when “Heather” was younger. However, HHHHH was coerced into accepting a plea deal before he could retrieve his laptop from evidence and prove that it had been tampered with (loc. 2743-2753).

After HHHHH was released, residency restrictions prevented him from living with his wife and children. Nor would a hotel, or even a homeless shelter accept him. Burkhardt and her husband invited him to stay at their house, though due to notification requirements, the entire town soon found out that a sex offender was living with them. The reaction was brutal. Burkhardt writes that one neighbor shouted at her until he was red in the face, and several still refuse to speak with her (loc. 1923).

The number of violations that Burkhardt tallies is considerable. In some sections of this book, the phrase “without a warrant” appears in nearly every other paragraph. In the meantime, crimes in Virginia for which wiretapping can legally be authorized such as murder or kidnapping have not appeared to cause the ICAC any concern. The ICAC has never been bothered enough to request wiretapping authorization for either of these crimes, even though there are special provisions in the law for exactly those purposes (loc. 327). Instead, to maintain their 100% conviction rates and to get the highest payoff in arrests for their efforts, the ICAC prefers to play make-believe and accost random men over the internet with the hope that, over time and with enough encouragement, they will say something that leads to their arrest. That’s another life destroyed, and another “internet predator” the ICAC can congratulate itself for catching.

Peer-to-Peer Products

Aside from saving America from sinister sex predators, another service we can thank the ICAC for is stopping the “multi-billion dollar child porn industry.” It does this by monitoring people’s personal information on a massive scale, violating privacy laws every step of the way. And if that doesn’t get them the arrest rates they desire, they will take the initiative to send out the child pornography themselves.

Burkhardt came across the case of Lopez through JJJJJ after they met in prison. Lopez claimed that his roommate downloaded child pornography on his laptop, leading to his 7-year incarceration. When Burkhardt reviewed his case, she discovered that multiple warrants were missing:

There was no warrant to remotely search Lopez’s computer before they obtained the search warrant for the home. There was no warrant to obtain Lopez’s IP address and unmask his identity from it. There was no warrant to geo-locate Lopez. There was no warrant to intercept content transmitted and downloaded to Lopez’s computer. Again, where are the OTHER warrants??? (loc. 3683).

Burkhardt explains that law enforcement monitors peer-to-peer software to find child pornography, by maintaining a database of “hash codes.” A hash code is a unique code derived from each document. Hash codes are protected by federal and state privacy laws as a form of electronic communication (loc. 3623-3668). However, the ICAC maintains a database of every hash code that it deems “of interest,” and scans people’s computer downloads searching for a match. Bulking metadata in this way essentially puts the activity of every electronic device in the country under a permanent state of investigation, and was deemed unconstitutional by the Federal District Court in a ruling against the National Security Agency (NSA). However, the ICAC has not faced any such restrictions (loc. 3842-3857).

Another issue is the extraordinary ease with which people can download child pornography without even knowing it. And once it is on a computer, there is almost no way to completely remove it. One 18-year-old, WWWWW, had images of his teenage girlfriend on his phone. She was in her underwear, yet after careful scrutiny, a police officer claimed that he was able to find a pubic hair slipping out of her panties. Thus, child porn. WWWWW was charged not only for possession of child porn but for distribution as well, simply because he “distributed” the file to the computer’s trash can to delete it (loc. 2057).

Law enforcement agencies are so giddy at the prospect of incarcerating people who download child porn that they sometimes resort to simply giving it away. For example, in 2014 an encrypted website called “Playpen” was suspected of hosting child pornography. Instead of just shutting it down, the FBI took the site over and sent malware to everyone who even visited the website. Whether or not visitors downloaded anything, were searching for adult pornography, or clicked out of curiosity, 150,000 computers around the world were infected, leading to mass investigations. Although the Electronic Frontier Foundation challenged the FBI on the constitutionality of these dragnet investigations and many of the charges did not stick, as of 2024 there are still men in federal prison as a result of this operation (loc. 2534-2591).

Like a poisoned stiletto, child pornography can slip in without a trace and wreak total devastation on a person’s life. This is what makes it such a powerful weapon. One former presidential appointee, according to Burkhardt, was sent an email containing child pornography. Before he even had the chance to open it, police raided his house. At his trial, even the judge told him, “You’ve been set up,” though there were no provisions to allow the judge to dismiss the case based on this fact, so he was sent to prison (loc. 4937-4947). Child pornography also gives the police plenty of ways to retaliate against people who question their tactics. For instance, in 2016 in Loudoun County, David Goldman’s house was raided in the middle of the night by over two dozen police officers. He and his family watched as they tore apart his house looking for child pornography, finding none. Later, he sued the Sheriff’s department for 1.5 million dollars in damages and court fees. The police then decided to take a second look, and this time they just happened to “discover” 84 files of child pornography on his computer, which they apparently missed the first time (loc. 4947).


In some sections, Burckhardt goes deep into the thicket – perhaps deeper than some readers may care to go. Roughly half of the book is written like an impassioned blog post, replete with underlines, boldfaced text, and multiple exclamation points; Burkhardt clearly hopes that her work will appear to general readers—including people who have been victimized by these laws and their families. Other sections, however, seem to be written for legal scholars or veterans of cybersecurity looking for a refresher course. Burkhardt always summarizes the highlights, but she does not spare you the details. Experts in the field of Fourth Amendment rights and civil liberties will gain tremendously from this book, and there is extensive supplementary material with case law, statutes, and the like.

For all readers, however, Manufacturing Criminals is a powerhouse. It is a scathing indictment of the ICAC, the FBI, and the criminal justice system as a whole—and not from a radical anarchist, but from a woman who is simply fulfilling her duty as a citizen by reporting the crimes that she has observed. Driven by Christian compassion and firm belief in equal protection under the law, Burkhardt deserves the nation’s respect for writing a book that is daring in the face of power and supportive of those who have been persecuted.

Discussion: Moderating a Total War?

It is also somewhat naive. Not to appear condescending to the groundbreaking work Burkhardt has done, but her unwavering faith in the essential goodness of America’s institutions and belief that they can be reformed to more perfectly embody the principles of rule of law, transparency, and personal privacy is rather quaint when considering the “enemy” America believes it is fighting. Burkhardt is continually shocked by how ubiquitously America departs from its ideals. At one point she writes, “This is NOT how our government is supposed to work,” and later she asks, “What has become of law and order in this country?” (loc. 4506, 5878).

So, is the United States simply breaking its own laws, or are there deeper questions that need to be asked about sovereign power and social disenfranchisement? Assuming, for a minute, that a modern nation-state has ever followed its own standards, maybe it would be more productive to critically consider the relationship between the norms (laws) and their exceptions, not as opposing principles but as emanating from the same state function of governing bodies. Giorgio Agamben (2003), for instance, has written:

In truth, the state of exception is neither external nor internal to the juridical order, and the problem of defining it concerns precisely a threshold, or a zone of indifference, where inside and outside do not exclude each other but rather blur with each other. The suspension of the norm does not mean its abolition, and the zone of anomie that it establishes is not (or at least claims not to be) unrelated to the juridical order (p. 23).

Rather than the exception as an infringement of the political over the legal, the exception allows the latter to be subsumed into the former. Just as the miracle legitimizes the Being who establishes the laws of nature, the exception legitimizes the sovereign who authorizes the laws of state (Neoh, 2024; see also Gould, 2013).

When the law is suspended in response to an “emergency,” it reaffirms the citizenry of the essential fact the law exists for their protection, so that even its suspensions are evidence of its justice. Exceptions to the norm themselves do not step outside of the norm, but merely express when the threat has become so odious that the norms are no longer suited to respond to it. In this case, the threat is anyone with the capacity to experience a sexual response towards a person under the age of consent.

Those who devote themselves to eradicating cross generational desire from the human species do not draw their zealotry out of a basic concern of apparent power imbalances in sexual relationships. The demarcation of age boundaries do not serve the same psychic function as, say, the prohibition on speeding (balancing the dual values of safety and punctuality). Rather, age of consent laws are now an issue of purity and contamination (see Lynch, 2002). Once a person has transgressed this boundary, it is irrelevant whether or not any actual person has made a claim against him. He has “morally polluted” the nation and must not be punished, but ritually cleansed. One of the most illustrative forms of this cleansing is the castration of sex offenders, which involves the sovereign power acting directly on the subject to disqualify his citizen status even within the human species (Spencer, 2016).

To do what Burkhardt does and separate the men she discusses in her book from the authentic “pedophiles” we need to be on the lookout for will not solve much. The “pedophile” himself, as a cultural folk devil, is almost entirely the product of fantasy. Hence, it is a versatile label that can be used with little differentiation. To argue over who more properly deserves the label distracts from an analysis of what the idea of the pedophile does for society, and what cultural anxiety he is made to carry.

As many cultural critics have noted, society needs pedophiles to look at young people with disgraceful, lustful intent, so that every other sort of gaze directed at youth (affectionate, protective, medical, forensic, etc) is decontaminated of its erotic elements (Kincaid, 1998; Mohr, 2004). This is evidenced in many of the law enforcement tactics that Burkhardt describes. For instance, detectives not only create fictitious kids, but impersonate them in heavily sexualized ways, bringing to life an imaginary teenager who—though legally incapable of consenting to sex—is so overwhelmed with sexual energy that they will not take no for an answer after they’ve set their sight on an adult man they want. Thus, law enforcement creates the very fantasy that it punishes people for having. This is not to mention the VIP access investigators have to lewd depictions of minors—all for official police purposes, of course. Consider how much due diligence that detective (mentioned above) applied while scanning that girl’s panty line until managed to find a stray pube (all funded by the taxpayer, bear in mind).

Burkhardt correctly identifies the fact that the ICAC and other law enforcement agencies are “manufacturing criminals,” though she never asks what this means—what purpose does it serve for us to imagine the child as perpetually endangered by sex, in a society that claims it has lost the ability to be scandalized? In addition to the fact that it permits the overt eroticizing of children in the guise of protection, some have argued that the child (or Child) serves as the last remnant/last possibility for social identity in late modernity (Jenks, 1994). According to Scutter (1993), the image of the Child in culture has become a storehouse for all adult values, or in other words, “the child makes a better adult.” By giving all virtue, all goodness, and all wisdom to children, it is they who become the guardians of adults’ futures, rather than the other way around (cited in Jenks, 1994; compare to Edelman, 2004). Adults find absolution, not through defending any actual child, but the image of child purity threatened by defilement. It is then necessary, also, that there exist legions of perverts hungry to defile, even if they need to be invented. As Kincaid writes, “We need to torture pedophiles…but we need always to make sure the torture isn’t fatal—not to the breed, anyhow.” (p. 94).

These are the circumstances that have created the state of exception in which “pedophiles” (so defined) live. Will a more just and equal application of the law help? Perhaps it is not so simple, as what people define as “equal treatment” is shaped by cultural representations of specific subjects and what they “naturally deserve.” As Burkhardt shows, while oftentimes law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges blatantly ignore the violations of state and federal statutes, just as often they will twist the wording of the law to their own satisfaction, so that, for instance, a fictional persona used to dupe strangers over the internet may be allowed to submit an exchange of emails into evidence as a “party” to the conversation (loc. 676-697). In one of her letters to the Virginia Attorney General, Mark Herring, Burkhardt complains that “Some very well intended statutes are actually very poorly written,” thus arguing that the problem is with the law itself—that the law is written in such a way that it cannot properly defend itself from its own violation (loc. 5928). This presumes that there is some essential value behind the law which the law is designed to express, the value being in this case, as Burkhardt maintains, that the police cannot deploy sting operations to entrap people for the crime of soliciting a minor, just as they cannot entrap a person for a crime of any sort.

There is, however, no consensus on what counts as a just legal interpretation. It may be argued, for instance, that the new “threats” of internet predators and child porn users, brought about by technological development, require a flexible reading of the law to produce the best outcome. Others may argue that these laws, when written, were not originally intended to hinder police officers working dutifully to lock up pedophiles, and can thus be disregarded. All laws require interpretation, and all interpretations are derived from beliefs, biases, and social norms [3]. In the face of prejudice of such magnitude, backing every claim on the strict letter of the law is a big gamble without also developing a sharper theory of sexual citizenship in an age of cyber predators with badges.



[1] The Kindle version used was not paginated. Instead “location” numbers were used. Location numbers throughout this review will be based on the default Kindle font size (the sixth notch from left).

[2] For an analysis of the growing power of the prosecution in criminal procedure, see Pfaff (2017).

[3] For the classic account of law as interpretation, see Dworkin (1986). For a similar analysis, and argument for legal polycentricity, see Hasnas (1995).


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Schmitt, C. (1922/2005). Political theology: Four chapters on the concept of sovereignty (p. 49). University of Chicago Press.


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