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Freed hacker Mitnick excoriates NY Times journo

Claims reporter Markoff inflamed the feds with sensationalist coverage

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Hacker legend Kevin Mitnick emerged from gaol on Friday, following five years' incarceration on charges of computer intrusion and data theft, and immediately lashed out at the reporter who he believes negatively influenced investigators, prosecutors, and the judge who sentenced him. "My case is about the extraordinary breach of journalistic ethics demonstrated by one man, John Markoff, who is a reporter for one of the most powerful media organisations in the world, the New York Times," Mitnick declared. Prosecutors, Mitnick said, exaggerated the harm he had caused, and encouraged the companies involved to inflate the damages they sustained, all as a result of "the false reputation created by Mr. Markoff's libelous and defamatory articles." We are reminded in particular of Markoff's 1994 Times article detailing the continuing and rather humiliating failure of federal investigators to close in on the fugitive hacker. To be fair, the article does taunt the feds, noting, for example, that "Mr. Mitnick has eluded an F.B.I. manhunt for more than a year and a half," and, for a kicker, adding that, "Last year, while a fugitive, [Mitnick] managed to gain control of a phone system in California that allowed him to wiretap the F.B.I. agents who were searching for him." Markoff also cites a Los Angeles police detective who had been forced into hiding while investigating Mitnick. "I've always considered him dangerous....I had to go underground. If he targets you, he can make your life miserable," Markoff quotes the detective as saying. Mitnick may have a point here: it's reasonable to imagine that the feds were less than thrilled having their impotence highlighted in the New York Times. And the fact that a private security expert, Tsutomu Shimomura, finally had to nail Mitnick for them can't possibly have improved their attitudes. Public humiliation may well have incited the powers that be to fall on Mitnick as hard as they did, though we must point out that Mitnick himself is chiefly responsible for that, being the one who eluded them so cleverly for so long -- and as for Markoff publishing the details, well, that's his job, after all. But Mitnick takes it all very personally. "My actions and my life have been manipulated and grossly misinterpreted by the media since I was seventeen, when the Los Angeles Times first violated the custom, if not the law, that prohibits the publication of the names of juveniles accused of crimes," he whinged. Mitnick also criticised Markoff for neglecting to disclose a relationship dating back to the publication of his book, Cyberpunk, in which Mitnick appears. Markoff also failed to disclose a long-standing relationship with Tsutomu Shimomura. It's by no means clear that these relationships affected the outcome of Mitnick's legal odyssey, but it is incredibly convenient that Markoff should have been reporting the exploits of a fugitive he knew, who was being tracked by a security consultant he knew as well. The appearance is sleazy, even if the effect is negligible. This is not to say that Mitnick lacks reason to be outraged. He detailed a most draconian history of incarceration: "I was held in pre-trial detention, without a bail hearing, for four years," he said. "During those four years, I was never permitted to see the evidence against me, because...the judge in this case refused to order [the prosecution] to produce the evidence for that entire time. I was repeatedly coerced into waiving my right to a speedy trail because my attorney could not prepare for trial" properly without the prosecution's evidence. It was excessive treatment, all right; it was perhaps even illegal treatment, and Mitnick may have some grounds for a future lawsuit. Clearly, the government acted more out of fear than jurisprudence; but the truth here is tortured and polymorphic. There is Mitnick's truth of being persecuted and cruelly scapegoated; there is Markoff's truth of following a story by all means at his disposal, even personal means; and there is the government's truth of pursuing a computer enthusiast as good as Mitnick and needing to slam him down hard as an example to others who can as easily make the feds look like clowns. But it's all a bit cute for Mitnick to attribute his outrageous treatment by the feds to a few newspaper articles, regardless of how unflattering or sensationalist they may have been. We can agree that Markoff laid it on a bit thick; but we also sense denial here. We sense a man who hasn't yet faced his own agency in terrifying the feds, and, by virtue of his skills and his deliberate actions, persuading them to imagine him as an insidious threat to truth, justice and the American way. He was simply too good at what he does, and too unrepentant, to escape the excessive wrath of a frightened government. ®

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