U.S. 'disappointed' over U.K. refusal to extradite hacker Gary McKinnon

Extradition relationship between two nations still strong, State and Justice departments say

U.S. officials today expressed dismay over the U.K. government's refusal to extradite British hacker Gary McKinnon, but insisted the broader extradition relationship between the two countries is as strong as ever.

In separate statements, both the U.S. Department of State and the Justice Department expressed frustration over British Home Secretary Theresa May's decision Tuesday not to extradite McKinnon. He is wanted by the U.S. government on charges that he hacked into 97 military and NASA computers 10 years ago.

Justice Department spokeswoman Rebekah Carmichael said May's decision was disappointing, "particularly given the past decisions of the U.K. courts and prior Home Secretaries that he should face trial in the United States.

"We note that the Home Secretary has described this case as exceptional and, thus, this decision does not set a precedent for future cases," Carmichael added in a statement via email.

Carmichael noted that the U.K. extradited five alleged terrorists just last week.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland echoed those sentiments at the department's daily press briefing this afternoon, based on a transcript provided to Computerworld.

"The United States is disappointed by the decision to deny Gary McKinnon's extradition to face long overdue justice in the United States," Nuland said. "We are examining the details of the decision." She added that the "incredible relationship" between the two nations would continue despite the setback.

Earlier on Tuesday, May announced that she was dropping the extradition process against the 46-year old McKinnon because he was too ill to stand trial on hacking charges in the United States. "[McKinnon] has Asperger's Syndrome and suffers from depressive illness," the Home Secretary said in a statement to British MPs. "The legal question is whether the extent of that illness is enough to preclude his extradition."

May said she consulted several clinicians and obtained extensive legal advice before making her decision. "After careful consideration of all the relevant material, I have concluded that Mr. McKinnon's extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life." May also said extradition would be incompatible with McKinnon's human rights, prompting muted cheering from the listening MPs.

May left it up to the U.K.'s director of public prosecution to decide whether McKinnon should be tried in a British court. McKinnon faced the possibility of up to 40 years in U.S. prison had he been convicted on all the charges against him.

May's decision brings to an abrupt end the U.S. government's 10-year effort to have McKinnon extradited on charges that he broke into more than 90 computers belonging to the military and NASA back in 2001 and 2002. McKinnon admitted to breaking into several weakly protected U.S. government computers, but said he was motivated by his search for proof of UFOs rather than malicious intent.

British Home Secretary Theresa May announces decision not to extradite Gary McKinnon.

The U.S government has maintained that McKinnon's intrusions were motivated by anti-American sentiments and resulted in more than $800,000 in damages. He was indicted on a series of hacking-related charges in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in 2002.

Over the years, the U.S. government's extradition battle has evoked strong criticism in Britain, where many have viewed the U.S. request as an overreaction to an offense committed on British soil. The case became a focal point for British opposition to a "fast track" extradition treaty between the U.K. and the U.S. that was implemented in 2003 after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Many of those who have supported McKinnon argued that the evidence offered as proof of McKinnon's wrongdoings was too flimsy to justify extradition. In 2010, the U.S. government's efforts were further complicated by the disclosure that McKinnon suffered from Asperger's Syndrome.

Efforts to stop the extradition gained momentum after that disclosure. The topic was even raised by British Prime Minister David Cameron during a visit with President Obama in 2010. In a news conference during that visit, Obama announced that he couldn't get involved in the case and would let the law take its course.

Carmichael today said that the U.S.-U.K. fast-track extradition treaty benefits both countries and called the treaty fair and balanced. "Our extradition treaty serves the interests of both our nations, and the United States values our continuing collaboration with British law enforcement authorities on a myriad of shared concerns."

John Pescatore, an analyst with Gartner, downplayed the impact the British decision will have on the relationship between the two countries. The move seems "consistent with many other cases of governments blocking extradition for non-violent criminals on health grounds," he said. "I don't think this one episode has set a precedent for that."

Richard Stiennon, an analyst with IT-Harvest, called the decision a fair one. "McKinnon is no threat and the U.S. should just walk away. This is embarrassing when there are so many important cases to be concentrating on."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

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