He became adept at tapping networks without assigned administrator passwords and pushing open their unlocked doors. In 2001, looking for evidence that the U.S. was scrubbing images of UFOs from satellite photos, he claims to have accessed computers at NASA's Johnson Space Center and found folders marked "raw" and "processed." "I started downloading a 'raw' image through my dial-up connection," he says. "It was a hemisphere of the Earth and, in front of it, a cigar-shaped vessel that was totally smooth: no rivets, seams, or aerials. Not man-made—no way." He pauses. "As I was looking," he says, "I saw the mouse move on the screen, and someone cut the connection. Bang—I was out of NASA."

Next came the Pentagon. It took him months to disable the security, but once inside, he says, he found he was far from alone. "I looked up the IP addresses for the other connections to the system, and the majority weren't military," he says. "There were American colleges, and people from Holland, Germany, China, Turkey, all over the place. So I took it for granted there was a permanent tenancy of foreign hackers within the Pentagon's computers." Sometimes he set up his own passwords, which denied other hackers access, and left admonishing messages of "hacktivism" for system administrators. "U.S. foreign policy is akin to government-sponsored terrorism these days," he wrote. "I am SOLO. I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels."

His passion remained UFOs, whose potential to benefit mankind he still discusses with seemingly guileless enthusiasm. But the Pentagon documents he was amassing intrigued him. "Even those jailer files from the military bases would have been a shocking story," he admits, "let alone the rest."
He grins weakly. "Then there was the knock at the door."

In March 2002, British high-tech-crime investigators arrested McKinnon, questioned him, and released him on police bail. "They were pretty laid-back about things," McKinnon says—the officers even told him they were instructed to ask him if he belonged to Al Qaeda. But they took his hard drive to Washington, he says, where they met with the U.S. Navy. That June or July, British officers arrested him again, and the mood had soured.

Todner, McKinnon's lawyer, met that summer and autumn with American officials, who were keen on a deal. They offered 6 to 10 years, Todner says, with no guarantee that a longer sentence wouldn't be imposed and with no right of appeal. When McKinnon turned the offer down, he says, an attache to the U.S. embassy warned that McKinnon would be "prosecuted to the max." The U.S. indicted him in November 2002.

Despite its synchronized portrayal of McKinnon's master cunning, the U.S. didn't immediately seek extradition, and the case fell silent. For more than two and a half years, McKinnon was a free man. The information-technology industry blacklisted him, he says, so he took a job at a warehouse and tried to keep his name out of the papers. But with the extradition treaty established, the U.S. decided to get the ball rolling in June 2005.