Former prosecutor: Mayor's plea for UFO hacker is off base

London mayor appealed to Obama to forgive British hacker who hit military computers

A former prosecutor says the mayor of London was ignoring the facts this week when he publicly threw his support behind the man who has admitted hacking into U.S. military computers in 2001.

Scott Christie, an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey in 2002 when Gary McKinnon of London was indicted in the case, told Computerworld that London Mayor Boris Johnson's emotional defense of the hacker is obscuring the facts and circumstances surrounding the crime. McKinnon has acknowledged that he hacked into U.S. government and military computer systems simply to look for information on UFOs.

But while the U.S. government alleges McKinnon caused $900,000 in damages to computers in 14 states, and that he caused the shutdown of critical military networks shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the mayor of London offered a very different take on it in a column that he wrote for London's Telegraph newspaper. The column was a public plea for President Barack Obama to drop the case against McKinnon.

Johnson called U.S. efforts to prosecute McKinnon a "legal nightmare." And saying that McKinnon is not a threat to the U.S., Johnson also referred to the Department of Justice's ongoing efforts to extradite McKinnon to the U.S. for prosecution as "American bullying."

Christie, who now leads the information technology group at law firm McCarter & English LLP, said it's clear that Johnson doesn't have all the information about the case.

"[McKinnon] has created this cause celebre status in order to appeal to folks who will beat the drum on his behalf and they conveniently ignore the facts of the situation and the entire nature of his conduct," said Christie. "I think that, unfortunately, it lends some credence to the individuals who are painting McKinnon as a victim, to have the mayor of London weigh in as part of that team ... people are resorting to a distortion of the facts in order to further his celebrity status as a victim. It's troubling."

In his column, Johnson asserts that McKinnon is not a "proper hacker," adding, "He was so innocent and un-furtive in his investigations, that he left his own e-mail address, and messages such as 'Your security is crap.'"

Christie, though, says that's not true, noting that McKinnon had worked as a system administrator in the U.K. He also said that McKinnon was able to surreptitiously enter Department of Defense computers and cause a significant denial of service within weeks of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

He added that McKinnon also did not leave his e-mail address behind.

"That's not true. Mr. McKinnon took great pains to obscure ... where he was coming from and who he actually was," said Christie. "He certainly did not leave his e-mail address. He was able to be identified only through the hard work and diligent investigation by the Naval and Defense Department criminal investigators. It's unfortunate that that Mr. Johnson doesn't have a full understanding of the facts in his rant in favor of Mr. McKinnon."

He also said he was surprised that any plea to a national leader would be made so publicly and not through normal political channels.

Late last week, it was announced that McKinnon was getting yet another chance to avoid extradition when the High Court in London ruled that the case can be reviewed by Keir Starmer, director of public prosecutions for England and Wales.

McKinnon, who was an unemployed system administrator in the U.K. at the time of the 2001 hack, has been using a series of legal maneuvers and appeals over the past seven years to fight extradition to the U.S. McKinnon, now 43, was indicted in November 2002 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. He has said he broke into U.S. military computers hoping to uncover evidence of UFOs.

McKinnon has admitted to hacking the computers and described how he did it in detail at computer security conferences in London.

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