Obama Softens Stance on Accused U.K. Hacker McKinnon

Gary McKinnon
Gary McKinnon
President Obama has thrown a nugget of hope to accused U.K. hacker Gary McKinnon, describing the long-running extradition case as being "in the hands of the British legal system."

The president's words at the end of his state visit to the U.K. were a matter of tone as much as substance, but were noticeably less harsh than those offered by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder during his visit only two weeks ago. McKinnon has fought extradition to the U.S., where he faces charges of breaking into dozens of military servers.

"We have proceeded through all the processes required under our extradition agreements," said President Obama during a joint press conference held with British Prime Minister David Cameron. "It is now in the hands of the British legal system. We have confidence in the British legal system coming to a just conclusion. And so we await resolution, and we'll be respectful of that process."

In a U.K. television interview, Holder had been more forthright. "McKinnon is a person who committed serious crimes resulting in about $1 million worth of damages in the United States. There has been a review by seven judges here in the U.K. who made the determination that his extradition was appropriate," he said.

The subject is considered politically charged enough in the U.K. for Cameron to have formally raised it during talks Wednesday that were part of President Obama's visit. This mirrored an identical discussion that took place in Washington, D.C., during Cameron's visit to the U.S. in July 2010.

The case of Gary McKinnon will go down as one of the longest extradition sagas in the history of either country, not to mention the biggest hack of U.S. military and government servers ever uncovered. McKinnon is accused of breaking into 97 servers between February 2001 and March 2002, causing various levels of damage and disruption. The U.S. first requested his extradition in 2002 after a federal grand jury indicted him on seven counts of hacking.

The case has acquired significance way beyond these mere facts, however, taking in successive administrations in the U.S. and the U.K., and becoming politically controversial in light of the U.K.'s 2004 enactment of its extradition agreement with the U.S.

McKinnon's extradition depends on two decisions. First, U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May must review evidence on his medical fitness to face extradition, a decision on which is imminent. If ruled fit, McKinnon will then be subject to a judicial review into the case granted on appeal against the 2009 decision by former Home Secretary Alan Johnson to allow his extradition to proceed.

If either rules in his favor, McKinnon will stand trial in the U.K. under less draconian sentencing guidelines.

McKinnon's mother, Janis Sharp, who has campaigned for her son to stand trial in the U.K., welcomed President Obama's remarks.

"The fact that two such powerful men had four questions [in the press conference] and one of them was all about Gary, it was overwhelming ... that they took the time to talk about Gary was incredible," she was reported to have said.

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