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Officials Disagree over How to Deal with Suspected Virus Spreader

February 2, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The local U.S. attorney and the Justice Department appear at odds over how to proceed with a Cornell University graduate student suspected of creating a virus that paralyzed 6,000 computers nationwide.

The difference has to do with whether Robert T. Morris Jr., 23, should be charged with a felony to deter similar computer attacks, or whether he should be offered a plea bargain and provide information under a grant of immunity.

U.S. Attorney Frederick J. Scullin in Syracuse, N.Y., has requested Justice Department approval to offer Morris the chance to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge and has granted him limited immunity, a Justice Department source said Wednesday, confirming a report in The New York Times.

The limited immunity grant ″caused a lot of consternation down here,″ said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, 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.

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

Morris, who is on a leave of absence from Cornell and living with his parents in Arnold, Md., has told friends that he created the virus but didn’t intend for it to invade computers around the nation.

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.

The Justice Department official who is considering what charges should be brought, Mark M. Richard, referred questions to the FBI. An FBI spokesman declined to discuss the case because it is an ongoing investigation.

The Justice Department source said he understood the FBI, which enforces the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, was extremely upset over the limited immunity grant to Morris.

Scullin was out of his office Wednesday afternoon and not available for comment, his secretary said.

″The matter is still pending before the department,″ said department spokesman John Russell.

Thomas Guidoboni, the Washington attorney for Morris, said no plea bargain had been worked out.

″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.″

He refused to confirm or deny that Morris had spoken with prosecutors.

Phone calls Wednesday to the Morris home in Maryland went unanswered. 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 is on a year-long leave of absence from Cornell, where he was a graduate student in computer science.

″He’s doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances,″ he said, noting that Morris has a temporary job but ″would like to get the case resolved.″

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

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