Convicted Hacker Says He Committed Credit Card Heist for U.S. Government
Last year, 29-year-old Albert Gonzalez pleaded guilty to hacking into computer systems at TJX, Office Max, Dave & Busters, Heartland Payment Systems and other companies, in order to steal some 130 million credit card numbers. He received a 20-year prison sentence, which he's currently serving at a low-security facility in Michigan.
Now, however, the hacker has asked a federal judge to rescind his guilty plea, on the grounds that the Secret Service authorized him to undertake his criminal operation. Gonzalez explained his request in a habeas corpus petition, filed on March 24th.
"I still believe that I was acting on behalf of the United States Secret Service and that I was authorized and directed to engage in the conduct I committed as part of my assignment to gather intelligence and seek out international cyber criminals," Gonzalez wrote. "I now know and understand that I have been used as a scapegoat to cover someone's mistakes."
The U.S. government fully acknowledges that Gonzalez served as an informant for the Secret Service. He began his undercover work in 2003, after using stolen credit card numbers to steal cash from ATM machines. As an informant, Gonzalez helped the feds nab other card thieves, and eventually earned as much as $75,000 per year from his work, according to a former associate.
Gonzalez also did a good job of integrating within the ranks. At one point, he was called upon to give a presentation on cyber-security in Washington, D.C., and reportedly spent his evenings socializing with other Secret Service agents. Whenever Gonzalez was required to commit illegal acts, he did so with assurance that the feds would support him.
"I would have done anything they asked me to do," he wrote. "I was overwhelmed and felt like I could do no wrong." When he was arrested in 2008, he "was expecting Secret Service to come and take custody of me and squash the charges." Instead, he was left to his own devices.
Gonzalez lays most of the blame on his former attorney, Rene Palomino. Gonzalez alleges that Palomino failed to prepare a 'Public Authority' defense, which can be used to defend crimes committed on behalf of the government. According to Gonzalez, he was never even offered this defense as an option. Had he known about it, he would've never pleaded guilty in the first place.
Palomino disagrees. "He was given the opportunity of a lifetime to work for the Secret Service," Palomino told Wired. "He chose to become a criminal, bottom line, and become a double agent working both sides - the criminal side and the legal side."
The Secret Service is unable to comment on the allegations, since the case is still in the appellate phase.