U.K. hacker loses round in extradition fight

Friday, February 27, 2009

LONDON -- British prosecutors said Thursday they would not bring charges against a London man accused of hacking into U.S. military computers. The decision is a blow to Gary McKinnon's attempts to avoid extradition to the United States.

U.S. prosecutors allege McKinnon, 42, broke into 97 computers belonging to NASA, the Department of Defense and several branches of the military soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. McKinnon says he was looking for evidence of UFOs.

British and European courts have rejected repeated attempts by McKinnon's lawyers to block his extradition. British prosecutors said Thursday the case was best prosecuted in the U.S.

"The bulk of the evidence is located in the United States, the activity was directed against the military infrastructure of the United States, the investigation commenced in the United States and was ongoing, and there are a large number of witnesses, most of whom are located in the United States," said Alison Saunders, head of the service's organized crime division.

Saunders said the charge McKinnon had admitted -- obtaining unauthorized access to a computer -- was far less serious than the U.S. allegations against him.

"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," she said.

U.S. prosecutors allege that McKinnon's hacks shut down the U.S. Army district responsible for protecting Washington, D.C., and cleared logs from computers at Naval Weapons Station Earle in northern New Jersey, which tracks the location and battle-readiness of U.S. Navy ships.

The hacker was caught in 2002 when investigators traced software used in the attacks to his girlfriend's e-mail account. If he is extradited to the United States, he will face trial on eight charges of computer fraud. Each count could bring a sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but U.S. prosecutors have said he would likely receive a much lighter sentence.

His lawyers will go to court again next month to argue that McKinnon should not be extradited because he has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. They say McKinnon is likely to become suicidal if he is removed to the U.S. away from family and familiar surroundings.

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