UK Pentagon hacker nears extradition to U.S.

Briton Gary McKinnon is accused of carrying out the biggest ever U.S. military hacking operation.
British prosecutors said Thursday they will not seek charges against accused Pentagon hacker Gary McKinnon, which puts him one step closer to being extradited to the United States to face charges.

The Crown Prosecution Service said its decision comes despite McKinnon’s admission that he broke the law and intentionally gained unauthorized access to computer systems. “Although there is sufficient evidence to prosecute Mr. McKinnon for these offenses, the evidence we have does not come near to reflecting the criminality that is alleged by the American authorities,” said Alison Saunders, head of the CPS organized crime division. The only thing now blocking McKinnon’s extradition is a legal review of his case by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. A Home Office spokesman said Thursday no date has been scheduled for a decision. The U.S. government says McKinnon carried out the biggest military computer hacking of all time, accessing 97 computers from his home in London for a year starting in March 2001 and costing the government about $1 million. McKinnon, currently free on bail in England, has said he was simply doing research to find out whether the U.S. government was covering up the existence of UFOs. Prosecutors in the United States and Britain disagree. “These were not random experiments in computer hacking, but a deliberate effort to breach U.S. defense systems at a critical time which caused well-documented damage,” Saunders said Thursday. “They may have been conducted from Mr. McKinnon’s home computer — and in that sense there is a UK link — but the target and the damage were trans-Atlantic.”

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U.S. federal prosecutors accuse McKinnon of breaking into military, NASA and civilian networks and accessing computers at the Pentagon; Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Meade, Maryland; the Earle Naval Weapons Station in Colts Neck, New Jersey; and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, among others. In one case, McKinnon allegedly crashed computers belonging to the Military District of Washington. McKinnon is believed to have acted alone, with no known connection to any terrorist organization, said Paul McNulty, the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. A U.S. federal grand jury indicted McKinnon on seven counts of computer fraud and related activity. If convicted, he would face a maximum of 10 years in prison on each count and a $250,000 fine. McKinnon’s lawyer, Karen Todner, complained Thursday that the United States has never provided evidence to prosecutors or McKinnon’s legal team to support their extradition request — and in fact, under Britain’s Extradition Act of 2003, U.S. prosecutors are not required to. “It is disappointing that (the director of public prosecutions) has not requested the evidence from the United States prosecutors prior to making this decision,” Todner said in a written statement. She said her client will remain in Britain until the Home Secretary makes a decision on the case, and added that she is hopeful about the outcome. McKinnon has previously said it was easy for him to access the secret files. “I did occasionally leave messages in system administrators’ machines saying, ‘This is ridiculous,'” McKinnon has said. “(I left) some political diatribes as well, but also a pointer to say, you know, this is ridiculous.” McKinnon was on the brink of extradition in August 2008, when the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, refused to reconsider the decision to send him to the United States, effectively clearing the way for his transfer. Shortly after that decision, however, McKinnon was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, and he claims that diagnosis changed the case for extradition. It was on that basis that McKinnon made his appeals in Britain. Asperger syndrome is a form of autism that affects a person’s social communication and interaction, according to Britain’s National Autistic Society. Those affected often are of above-average intelligence and have fewer problems speaking than do those with autism. They sometimes have difficulty knowing when to start or end a conversation and can be very literal in what they say, with difficulty understanding jokes, metaphors, and sarcasm. In addition, some people with Asperger Syndrome develop an intense, sometimes obsessive interest in a hobby or subject, the National Autistic Society said. “He says what he thinks to his own detriment,” a friend of McKinnon’s told CNN in January. He said McKinnon fears that his compulsion to say what he thinks would land him in trouble in an American prison.