Syrian hacker sympathetic to Assad pleads guilty in U.S. court

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A computer hacker sympathetic to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government pleaded guilty for his role as a middleman in an extortion scheme targeting U.S. media outlets and governments, the U.S. Department of Justice said on Wednesday.

It said in a statement that Peter Romar, 37, was a member of the Syrian Electronic Army hacking group and had joined an operation to infiltrate computers of Assad’s “perceived detractors” in the media, U.S. government and other governments.

Romar’s guilty plea was entered in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Romar, who was extradited from Germany in May, faces up to five years in prison when he is sentenced, the statement said.

At the time of the indictment, Justice Department officials said the hackers used a tactic known as “spear-phishing,” to target computers. CNN, National Public Radio, the Associated Press, Reuters, Microsoft Corp, Harvard University and Human Rights Watch were among the targets.

“If a victim could not make extortion payments to the conspiracy’s Syrian bank accounts due to sanctions targeting Syria, Romar acted as an intermediary in Germany to evade those sanctions,” the Justice Department said in Wednesday’s statement.

A co-defendant remains at large and is believed to be in Syria, where a 5-1/2 year civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions to flee.

Reporting by Susan Heavey; editing by Grant McCool