Former prosecutor: UFO hack looked like terrorist attack

Investigative resources diverted in crucial weeks, months after September 11

After the computer network at the Naval Weapons Station Earle in New Jersey was breached and crashed just a few weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, investigators thought it might be part of a larger al-Qaeda plot against the United States.

Investigators worked around the clock to figure out who had been in and out of the system that runs the weapons station for about five months, stealing passwords, installing remote access software, deleting data and ultimately shutting down the network of 300 computers for an entire week. That weeklong shutdown meant that for that period of time -- in the aftermath of attacks on the US -- the station couldn't do its job of replenishing munitions and supplies to the Atlantic fleet.

Was the break-in organized by a nation-state? A terrorist group? After throwing critical resources at the investigation when the government was already investigating not only the 9/11 attacks but the anthrax killings, investigators didn't track the breach to al-Qaeda. They tracked it to an unemployed system administrator in the United Kingdom -- Gary McKinnon, who was subsequently charged with hacking into 92 computer systems at the Pentagon, the US Army, the US Air Force, the US Department of Defense and NASA.

It's been seven years since the break-ins and about six since the charges were leveled against McKinnon, 42, of London, Since then, he has been fighting extradition to the US, but just last week the highest British court dismissed his latest appeal against the extradition.

McKinnon, who has said he broke into US military computers hoping to uncover evidence of UFOs, plans to appeal the decision to the European Court of Human Rights. According to his attorney, Karen Todner, it's the last appeal he can file.

A resource drain at the worst time

Scott Christie, who at the time was an Assistant US Attorney in New Jersey, was the first prosecutor brought into the case. Christie, who now leads the information technology group at law firm McCarter & English, said McKinnon simply is "grasping at straws" with his latest appeal.

"I think it reinforces the fact that arguments against extradition had no merit and that he is continuing to avoid the inevitable," said Christie, who worked with investigators from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service on the case. "It is a very significant intrusion case because it reinforces the fact that a lone individual who is motivated can cause significant damage to the military preparedness of this country. It showed unfortunately that security on computers at military installations was not as robust as it should have been... If that's in fact true, it gives one concern as to what organized groups with sophisticated hacking tools who may be sponsored by organized crime or foreign governments could achieve in this area."

Christie said that since the naval station's system was shut down on the heels of 9/11, it reinforced people's worst fears. And because of the seriousness of the attack and its possible link to a terrorist organization, the government threw a lot of resources at the problem -- resources that could have been used in the terrorist investigation.

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Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld
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