By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 28, 2009
LONDON, Aug. 27 -- Supporters of autistic British computer hacker Gary McKinnon attempted to rally support on Thursday for the man who is fighting extradition to the United States to face federal charges in Virginia and New Jersey for penetrating dozens of U.S. government computers.
Sitting in his bedroom in north London shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, McKinnon exploited security problems in a variety of computer programs to tap into dozens of U.S. government computers, including at NASA, the Pentagon and more than a dozen military installations in 14 states.
At the time, Paul J. McNulty, then U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, called it the "the biggest hack of military computers ever detected." McKinnon was indicted in Alexandria and New Jersey in November 2002 on eight counts of computer fraud. He explained his actions by saying he was looking for UFOs. But he has yet to be brought to the United States.
For the last seven years, McKinnon's lawyers have battled his extradition. They have sought to have the case tried in Britain, where if he was convicted the penalties would be less severe and he could be imprisoned closer to his family.
But in February, British authorities refused to charge him or have the U.S. charges heard here. The Crown Prosecution Service said it would be best to prosecute McKinnon in the United States and that his actions were not "random experiments" but "a deliberate effort to breach U.S. defense systems at a critical time which caused well documented damage."
And last month, McKinnon lost an appeal of the British government's decision not to try him here and to extradite him to the United States.
McKinnon's lawyers are applying to appeal that decision to the newly-formed Supreme Court, which opens on Oct. 1 and replaces the judicial role of the House of Lords, currently the highest court in the country. If that fails, they will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, supporters said.
McKinnon has admitted to hacking into 97 U.S. government computers between February 2001 and March 2002.
His supporters argue that he should not be extradited to face the U.S. charges because he has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that he was diagnosed with last year. They say the diagnosis explains his obsession with hacking. His family says that rather than being America's worst cyber-terrorist, he is a vulnerable eccentric who could become suicidal if removed from his family.
They also deny the U.S. allegations that his actions resulted in $700,000 in damage.
Standing outside the U.S. embassy in central London, Janis Sharp, McKinnon's mother, said in an interview that the hacking was "the most incredibly stupid thing for him to do," and explained he was partly motivated by conspiracy theories and was trying to unearth new evidence around the Sept. 11 attacks, and partly by his "childhood obsession" of finding proof that UFOs exist. "Please, Obama, he'd never hurt anyone. Don't let the first person you extradite be a good, gentle man with Asperger's," she pleaded.
McKinnon, 43, has become a cause celebre here, with backing from the Daily Mail, a widely read tabloid that frequently campaigns for populist causes, as well as high-profile figures including David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party; Sarah Brown, the prime minister's wife; and musicians such as Sting and Peter Gabriel. Supporters have set up a Web site called Free Gary at http://freegary.org.uk.
The American Civil Liberties Union also released a letter in support of McKinnon on Thursday. The organization said the case highlights what some people here think is a lopsided extradition treaty between the United States and Britain, skewed against British citizens.
Part of the current uproar over McKinnon's case stems from a general mood that Britain is kowtowing to the United States, said Ben Brandon, an extradition lawyer in London. He pointed out similar dismay when three British bankers linked to Enron were extradited to the United States in 2006, and said that in both cases, campaigners effectively "tapped in to general feeling that we are in America's pocket, that we are not exercising our own judgment, that we are letting the Americans do our job for us."
While McKinnon's campaigners point out he could receive a maximum sentence of 60 years in U.S. prison, legal analysts said that if he was convicted in the United States, he would probably serve eight to 10 years.