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Grant of Limited Immunity Said to Upset Some Justice Department Officials

February 2, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A U.S. attorney’s grant of limited immunity to a graduate student suspected of causing a nationwide computer virus has upset some Justice Department officials, a department source said Wednesday.

In addition, the office of U.S. Attorney Frederick J. Scullin in Syracuse, N.Y., has sought Justice Department approval to allow Robert T. Morris Jr. to plead guilty to a misdemeanor rather than a felony charge, the source said, confirming a report in The New York Times.

The source said the Justice Department was considering leveling felony charges against Morris, 23, to deter future computer attacks like the one in November that paralyzed 6,000 computers nationwide.

The grant of limited immunity from prosecution, granted to get Morris to speak to prosecutors about the case, ″caused a lot of consternation down here,″ said the Justice Department source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

″As far as we’re concerned, the legal problem was still intent,″ he said, adding that the officials were uncertain whether Morris had planned to create and spread the virus last November. A computer virus is a tiny program that spreads throughout computer networks and disrupts their normal operation.

Morris has told friends that he created the virus, but he didn’t intend for it to invade computers around the nation.

Scullin was out of his office Wednesday afternoon and not available for comment, his secretary said. Department spokesman John Russell said the matter is still pending before the department.

The Justice Department official who is considering the case, Mark M. Richard, referred questions to the FBI, which declined to discuss it because it is an ongoing investigation.

The source said he understood the FBI was extremely upset that Morris had been given the limited immunity grant.

The FBI enforces the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986. The law says that unlawful access to a government computer can result in a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $250,000 fine. If fraud is proved, the punishment can reach a maximum of 20 years in prison.

Morris is on a leave of absence from Cornell University and living with his parents in Arnold, Md. Thomas Guidoboni, the Washington attorney for Morris, declined to say whether his client had spoken with prosecutors in Syracuse.

″I’m not going to confirm it nor deny it,″ Guidoboni said, but he said that he had spoken both with the U.S. attorney and an assistant working directly on the case.

″They have not told me what they’ve recommended, and I’ve not offered on behalf of my client to plead guilty to anything,″ he said. ″I have told them we won’t plead guilty to a felony. I’m very emphatic about that.″

The virus that began Nov. 2, 1988, infected 6,000 university and military computers nationwide connected by the ARPANET network, which is used for transmission of non-classified data among universities and military contractors. The system was virtually shut down for several days, but no information was destroyed.

ARPANET is part of INTERNET, which has another network called MILNET, used by military facilities.

Phone calls Wednesday to the Morris home in Maryland went unanswered and Morris’ father, Robert T. Morris Sr., chief computer scientist for the National Computer Security Center near Baltimore, did not immediately return a phone call to his office.

Guidoboni said Morris took a year-long leave of absence from Cornell, where he was a graduate student in computer science, starting Dec. 1, 1988.

″He’s doing all right,″ the attorney said. ″He’s got a temporary job, but he would like to get the case resolved. ... He’s doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances.″

Guidoboni said he didn’t know if the temporary job involved work with computers.

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