Briton who hacked into US military fights extradition

An unemployed computer worker accused of the largest ever hacking attack on the US military is the victim of a politically motivated attempt to extradite him to America, his lawyers claim.

Gary McKinnon, 39, of Wood Green, north London, appeared yesterday before Bow Street magistrates' court at the start of extradition proceedings over claims that he illegally accessed 53 computers, from the Pentagon to a US Navy munitions dump, from his home computer.

The former network administrator, who has a special interest in UFOs, is accused of causing $700,000 of damage to machines operated by the US Army and Navy, the Pentagon and Nasa over 12 months from March 2001.

The hacking operation caused acute embarrassment to the American authorities by forcing the computer system of the US Army in the Washington DC area and a naval base in New Jersey to be shut down in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September attacks.

Paul McNulty, the Virginia state attorney bringing the prosecution against Mr McKinnon, described his alleged activities as the "biggest hack of military computers ever, at least ever detected".

Lawyers representing Mr McKinnon, said the impetus behind the extradition proceedings was coming from the Bush administration and criticised the treatment of other British citizens in America, an apparent reference to the Guantanamo Bay detainees.

His solicitor, Karen Todner, said her client was particularly disappointed that it had taken more than two and a half years for the US authorities to apply for his arrest after charges were laid by a federal grand jury in November 2002.

Mrs Todner said: "This decision for extradition is driven by the American government. Mr McKinnon intends to contest this case most vigorously. "Of particular concern to him is the treatment of other British nationals under the US judicial system which inspires little confidence. We believe that, as a British national, he should be tried here."

The computer programmer, who faces 70 years in jail and a fine of up to $250,000, was in custody last night pending payment of a £5,000 surety for bail.

According to his grand jury indictment, Mr McKinnon used Hungarian software downloaded from the internet to scan thousands of American military computers and remotely gain control of machines with simple-to-guess passwords.

He is accused of then causing systems he had electronically burgled to shut down, as well as stealing passwords, deleting 1,300 e-mail accounts and downloading "sensitive" - but not classified - information about US Navy shipbuilding and munitions.

One alleged attack, 12 days after 11 September 2001, on Earle naval base in New Jersey, where the US Atlantic Fleet is armed and supplied, is claimed to have caused the shutdown of a network of 300 computers for a week.

Christopher Christie, a New Jersey state attorney, said: "This was a grave intrusion into a vital military computer system at a time when we, as a nation, had to summon all our defences against further attack."

American prosecutors have already conceded that Mr McKinnon was not acting for any terror group or passing on his information to another government or organisation.

Instead, Mrs Todner said her client, whose non-military targets included two public libraries and a company producing electronic maps, was searching for information to prove a United States government cover-up of the existence of UFOs as well as exposing security flaws in the American military's computer networks.

She said: "He doesn't deny that he did infiltrate their computer system."

Mr McKinnon, who used the internet nickname Solo, was first arrested by officers from Scotland Yard's hi-tech crime unit in March 2002 but no charges were brought against him in Britain.

The request for his extradition to America is the first from Britain to the US in an international hacking case. Previous cases have been prosecuted in the UK under the 1990 Computer Misuse Act, which allows hackers to be charged with raiding networks abroad.

Mr McKinnon was told to reappear for an extradition hearing on 27 July.