A British computer hacker facing extradition to the United States on charges of damaging U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and NASA systems said Wednesday he never intended to cause harm — he was just searching for hidden evidence of UFOs.
Gary McKinnon, 40, should be sent for trial in the United States, a British judge ruled Wednesday. A final decision must be made within two months by British Home Secretary John Reid.
McKinnon has been indicted in New Jersey and northern Virginia on charges of illegally accessing 97 computers, causing at least $700,000 in damage — the largest-ever attack on the U.S. government’s computer networks, U.S. government attorneys told the British court.
Court records in Virginia allege McKinnon caused up to $900,000 in damage to computers, including those of private companies, in 14 states.
If Reid approves extradition, McKinnon will appeal to the High Court, his lawyer Karen Todner said.
“My intention was never to disrupt security. The fact that I logged on and there were no passwords means that there was no security,” McKinnon said outside Bow Street Magistrates Court. “I was looking for UFOs.”
McKinnon, an unemployed computer system administrator who lives in London, claimed he was seeking evidence that the United States is concealing extraterrestrial technology — but Judge Nicholas Evans noted that he left messages on one system protesting U.S. foreign policy.
“U.S. foreign policy is akin to government-sponsored terrorism,” Evans quoted one such note as saying.
McKinnon was arrested in 2002. He opposed extradition, claiming he could face prosecution under U.S. anti-terror laws.
He is accused of hacking into U.S. government computers including a system at the Pentagon between February 2001 and March 2002.
In New Jersey, McKinnon was accused of hacking into a network of 300 computers at the Earle Naval Weapons Station in Colts Neck, New Jersey, and stealing 950 passwords.
The break-in — which occurred immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks — shut down the whole system for a week, Evans said. The station is responsible for replenishing the Atlantic fleet’s munitions and supplies.
Edward Lawson, another attorney for McKinnon, told an earlier hearing the suspect feared prosecution by a U.S. military commission, under powers introduced after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Lawson said an “unsigned and anonymous” diplomatic note from the U.S. Embassy in London that said McKinnon would not be subject to Military Order No. 1, offered no reassurance he would be dealt with in federal courts.
Military Order No. 1 allows U.S. President George W. Bush to detain terror suspects without trial or put them before military courts.
Evans said there was no “real, as opposed to fanciful, risk” of McKinnon being prosecuted under anti-terror laws, asking the suspect to accept an assurance provided by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Evans told McKinnon that in choosing to target the U.S. he had “run the risk of being prosecuted in that country.”
Officials in New Jersey and Virginia must now decide where McKinnon should stand trial, Evans said.
If convicted of the charges in New Jersey, McKinnon faces a maximum sentence of five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine, U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie said at the time the indictment was disclosed.
Though McKinnon was able to view sensitive details about naval munitions and shipbuilding on the secure U.S. systems, he did not access classified information, an investigation found.