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British home secretary blocks computer hacker’s extradition to U.S.

Gary McKinnon

The man accused of one of the biggest hacks into the U.S. Defense Department computer networks has escaped extradition from the United Kingdom after that country’s home secretary blocked the move.

British home secretary, Theresa May, said on Oct. 16 that she had withdrawn an extradition order against 46-year-old Scottish computer hacker Gary McKinnon that would have sent him to the U.S. to face criminal prosecution.

The office of the home secretary is responsible for internal affairs within the U.K., including immigration and citizenship, policing and national security. The U.K.’s MI5 counter intelligence and security agency is directly accountable to the office.  

McKinnon is accused of hacking into almost 100 military and National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) computers between February, 2001 and March, 2002, under the screen name “Solo.” U.S. officials accuse him of deleting critical computer operating files which shut down 2,000 computers on the U.S. Army’s Military District of Washington network for 24 hours. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, he also allegedly deleted files from computers at the Earle Naval Weapons Station in New Jersey, crippling the station’s munitions supply duties.

At the time, U.S. officials called the hack the biggest ever to hit its computer networks.

The action comes just after the U.K. extradited several long-sought Islamic terrorists to the U.S. to face prosecution. On Oct. 6, Radical Islamist cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, also known as “Abu Hamza,” made his first appearance in U.S. federal court in New York after his extradition to face U.S. terror charges after years of legal wrangling to avoid extradition. Along with al-Masri, Saudi native Khalid al-Fawwaz, Egyptian Adel Abdul Bary, Babar Ahmad and Syed Talha Ahsan were also extradited.

McKinnon, who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, said he was searching for files showing evidence of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). Because of his condition, which his lawyers said diminished his mental capacities, he gained a support in the U.K. as he fought extradition for ten years.

In blocking the extradition on Oct. 16, May said although McKinnon is accused of serious crimes, there wasn’t a doubt that he suffered from a serious illness that could endanger him if forced to leave his home country. “He has Asperger's syndrome, and suffers from depressive illness,” she said in an Oct. 16 statement.

She said she reached her decision after consulting with clinicians and medical experts. “After careful consideration of all of the relevant material, I have concluded that Mr. McKinnon's extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with Mr. McKinnon's human rights,” she said.

“I have therefore withdrawn the extradition order against Mr. McKinnon.”

McKinnon’s legal fight may not be over completely. May said the case will move to the director of public prosecutions to decide whether to try him in the U.K. court system.