May 8, 2014 -- The former Navy sailor accused of leading a group of hackers that targeted U.S. government and private websites said today that he and his associates were “just a group of people that were dumb and did dumb things.”
“Essentially I am in trouble for posting all of the stuff on Twitter,” Nicholas Knight told ABC News by email in his first interview. “Although a lot of people are saying I was the leader of some crime organizations that was out to get people which wasn’t true. Just a group of people that were dumb and did dumb things.”
In criminal information filed Monday, prosecutors allege that while Knight served in the Navy as a systems administrator in the nuclear reactor department of the USS Harry S. Truman, he was also leading a double life as a self-proclaimed “nuclear black hat” and the leader of a hacking group called Team Digi7al that stole or attempted to steal confidential or private information and post it online.
The group attacked not only high-profile U.S. government websites – including the website for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), a Department of Homeland Security site and a U.S. Navy site – but seemingly random targets including the websites of the Library of Congress, Harvard University, the World Health Organization, San Jose State University and Kawasaki, according to the single-count information document entered into court records Monday. After the attacks, the group then bragged about their accomplishments on Twitter, with Knight acting as the main “publicist,” according to the Department of Justice.
The court filing noted that three alleged members of the group were minors when they joined. One of alleged members, who was not identified in the court filing, purportedly told investigators that some in the group were “somewhat politically inclined” to find and release secret information – perhaps a nod to the anti-secrecy movement of which former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is the current face. But they also did it because it was “fun,” an alleged member says in the filing, “[w]hich, when you get right down to it, that’s what everyone does.” Knight said he's not very political.
Though Knight was aboard the Truman while allegedly “conduct[ing] unlawful Team Digi7al activities on the Navy’s computer network,” the filing does not accuse him of trying to hack the ship’s own protected systems.
Knight did not deny that he hacked into several targeted sites, as alleged in the filing, but he noted that none of those were related to the U.S. military or government. He said it was one of his co-conspirators who was the one actually doing most of the hacking, and Knight said he was just posting the results. Knight also said he worked with investigators for four months to help catch that co-conspirator. The filing said Knight had agreed to cooperate with authorities after his home was raided in February 2013. Knight was never arrested.
Prosecutor Ryan Souders, who is involved in the case, told ABC News that generally when a suspect is charged in a criminal information filing, rather than an indictment, that means the defense has indicated they will not contest the charges.
“I did something dumb and am willing to suffer the consequences,” Knight told ABC News.
Military records provided to ABC News show Knight joined the Navy in 2009 and reported to the Truman in 2011. He was a Machinists Mate Third Class when he left the service in May 2013, three months after investigators raided his home.
He says he was honorably discharged and “conducted [himself] professionally while on the ship.”
Knight says he’s currently employed at the technology giant Siemens as a service specialist. Siemens confirmed that Knight is employed there but declined to comment further.
Likewise, the Navy and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to request for comment about the alleged breaches to some of their websites.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency told ABC News that its “routine security measures” detected the attempted hack, and said the hack did not access employee data and “had no impact on the NGA mission.”
Attorneys for Knight and Daniel Krueger, an Illinois community college student also named in the filing, did not respond to requests for comment for this report. If convicted, the pair could face up to five years in prison or a $250,000 fine, according to the Justice Department.
The Wall Street Journal reported the allegations against Knight and his team Monday.
ABC News' Lee Ferran contributed to this report.