LONDON — A British computer hacker's decade-long struggle to avoid trial in the US over alleged breaches of military and NASA networks ended in success yesterday, as the UK government ruled he was unfit to face charges there.
Home Secretary Theresa May said she had blocked the US request to extradite Gary McKinnon after medical experts concluded he was seriously depressed and that there was "a high risk of him ending his life."
The 46-year-old unemployed computer administrator, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, was accused of one of the largest ever breaches of military networks, carried out soon after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
"He literally couldn't speak, he cried, then we hugged, then we cried again," his mother Janis Sharp said, describing the moment she and McKinnon learned of his reprieve.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: "The United States is disappointed by the decision to deny Gary McKinnon's extradition to face long overdue justice in the United States. We are examining the details of the decision."
British prosecutors will now decide if he should face charges in the UK.
McKinnon insists that he was scouring sensitive US computer networks in an attempt to uncover concealed evidence of extraterrestrial life. Known online by the handle SOLO, McKinnon also claimed to have been attempting to expose security weaknesses.
He described how in 2001 and 2002 he spent about a year attempting to crack US military systems — spending up to eight hours a day at a computer in his girlfriend's aunt's house while drinking beer and smoking marijuana.
McKinnon has since claimed that his hacking uncovered photographic proof of alien spacecraft and the names and ranks of "non-terrestrial officers."
He had offered to plead guilty to a hacking charge in Britain in order to avoid extradition. Prosecutors turned him down, insisting the US was the correct venue for a trial.
US officials said McKinnon's hacking shut down the US Army district responsible for protecting Washington, DC, and caused about US$900,000 worth of damage. He was also accused of clearing logs from computers at Naval Weapons Station Earle in northern New Jersey, which tracks the location and battle-readiness of US Navy ships.
At the time of McKinnon's indictment, prosecutor Paul McNulty said he had pulled off "the biggest hack of military computers ever, at least ever detected."