US lawyers 'threatened' Nasa hacker, court hears

Gary McKinnon's defence has alleged that as legal attaché to the US Embassy, Ed Gibson 'threatened' McKinnon with up to 60 years in jail for hacking US military systems
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

US lawyers tried to pressure 'Nasa hacker' Gary McKinnon into agreeing to extradition, the Law Lords heard on Monday.

Speaking at an appeal hearing at the House of Lords, McKinnon's defence lawyer David Pannick QC said the US had tried to "coerce" McKinnon into waiving his rights to fight extradition and trial in the US on charges of hacking government and military systems. Then-FBI legal attaché Ed Gibson and a US government legal representative made the attempt during plea bargaining in 2003, Pannick claimed.

"The US had attempted to secure [McKinnon's] voluntary surrender and guilty pleas by plea bargain tactics that were coercive and involved threats regarding the duration of his sentence of imprisonment," Pannick told the Law Lords.

Gibson and the US government legal representative told McKinnon that if he agreed to be extradited and pleaded guilty to hacking charges, he would receive a sentence of up to 46 months in a low-security jail, the defence claimed. However, they added that Gibson had "threatened" McKinnon that if he did not do so, he could expect a sentence of up to 60 years in a high-security prison.

Before his arrest, McKinnon was wanted in the US on five offences of "fraud and related activity on government computers", and one other indictment. The Briton has admitted hacking into Nasa systems, and an order to extradite him to face charges in the US was signed in July 2005.

"At a meeting with Mr Gibson and Mr Stein [in April 2003], Mr McKinnon was told that if he did not agree, then all bets were off," Pannick said. "Eight to 10 years [per count] or possibly longer was indicated."

Moreover, in a letter to McKinnon dated 9 April, 2003, Gibson said the US authorities would reserve the right to prosecute McKinnon under US military law, which carries much more stringent penalties, Pannick told the court.

"Mr Gibson is threatening that if you do not co-operate, [the US] will reserve the right to rely on that," said Pannick.

However, court documents submitted by the prosecution on behalf of the US authorities reject the assertion that the legal team led by Gibson was threatening McKinnon, and maintain that Gibson was informing McKinnon of statements of fact.

"Your respondent maintains that it has never 'threatened' the appellant as alleged," stated the documents.

Gibson was unavailable for comment at the time of writing. He became Microsoft's chief security advisor in the UK in 2005.

McKinnon told ZDNet.co.uk on Monday that he felt his chances of avoiding extradition had been improved by the Lords agreeing to hear his appeal.

"I know from the fact that the appeal got into the House of Lords that it means they must have strongly felt I had a point [to be considered]," McKinnon said. "My chances are better than they were, but that's not saying much, as previously I had an icicle's chance in hell."

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