The charges levelled against McKinnon by the US Department of Justice are undoubtedly serious. He is alleged to have “accessed and damaged without authorization 92 computers belonging to the United States Army, Navy, Air Force and Department of Defense.”
He is also said to have installed a remote administration tool, copied password files and other files, deleted a number of user accounts and deleted critical system files.
The timescale in which all this is alleged to have taken place is significant – between February 2001 and March 2002 – bracketing the terrorist attacks on America on 11 September 2001. Not a good time to break into US military computers.
And if you also bear in mind that McKinnon is alleged to have left a calling card in one of his attacks claiming “U.S. foreign policy is akin to government sponsored terrorism”, then the US government’s desire to make McKinnon stand trial becomes more understandable.
Since his arrest in the UK, McKinnon has not denied that he broke into US government computers. His defence, and that of the Free Gary McKinnon website (rather presumptive as Mr. McKinnon is currently quite free) largely rests on his claim that he merely exposed holes in the US Department of Defense systems and that he is being made a scapegoat for US security failings.
The issue has now moved beyond simple admission of guilt and motive to one of whether he should be extradited to stand trial in the US. This has brought dangerous comparisons with the likes of Babar Ahmad and Abu Hamza, and claims that he could be facing up to 70 years in jail, some of it in the Guantanamo Bay facility. There is a tendency by some to ally McKinnon’s actions with opposition to the war in Iraq.
He doesn’t warrant the hero status now being foisted on him by manipulative factions. McKinnon is a scared and sad individual who went too far and now must face up to his actions of five years ago.
The United States is not without fault, and it is embarrassed by the case. Looked at impartially, McKinnon did expose its systems and questions should be asked about how its key defence departments were rendered so vulnerable.
All parties, including our Home Secretary, would be wise to treat McKinnon with circumspection. The United States has the right to prosecute a person who attacked its systems. If found guilty, McKinnon deserves some sort of punishment. Arguments over UK/US extradition laws are extra, not integral to this case. McKinnon is no terrorist. He’s no hero either.
Paul Fisher is editor of SC Magazine