The US government wanted a speedy resolution of its case against a self-confessed British hacker because it was embarrassed by the ease with which he was able to access federal computer systems, the House of Lords heard yesterday.
Gary McKinnon is appealing a decision by former home secretary John Reid to extradite him to the US to face charges that he illegally accessed 73,000 US government computers, including the US Army, Navy and NASA.
He is accused of deleting files and disrupting military networks in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and causing damage worth £450,000.
Gary McKinnon claims that the US offered him a plea-bargain deal that amounted to coercion and an abuse of the extradition process in an attempt to settle the case quickly.
But Clare Montgomery QC, for the US, told the lords that the plea bargain offered to McKinnon gave all parties many benefits, including a speedy resolution.
She said the case was embarrassing to US security because it showed how easy it had been to penetrate US federal systems. She denied suggestions that US prosecutors had overstepped a "bright line" between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in putting McKinnon under pressure to agree a plea bargain.
"There were no innocents abroad here being led astray," she said. "This was a negotiation that Mr McKinnon facilitated."
Threat of death penalty
Montgomery referred to claims that Ed Gibson, then a legal attache at the US London embassy and now a legal adviser to Microsoft UK, had threatened to see that McKinnon "fried".
Legal counsel would have told McKinnnon that the charges did not carry the death penalty, and that he should construe it as "the exaggerated expression of prosecutorial displeasure", she said.
The lords are expected to take three weeks to deliver their judgment. If they decide for McKinnon, the defence has asked that the case return to the magistrate's court.
If the appeal fails, McKinnon will be extradited to stand trial in the US. Edward Fitzgerald, acting for human rights watchdog Liberty in support of McKinnon, said the defence would apply for leave to appeal the case in the European Court of Human Rights.
The British taxpayer is paying all costs, including those of the US government. Costs so far are estimated at close to £900,000. McKinnon admits he entered the systems without authorisation, but denies he caused damage on the scale claimed.
Five British law lords heard arguments yesterday from McKinnon's representatives, and from Crown Prosection Service counsel, acting for the US government.