LONDON, UK — The special relationship — Britain and the US, or is that the US and Britain? — is often remarked on here in Britain, particularly when there is a change at the top of government. A new president or prime minister is good for a couple of days of headlines, at least, about America and her most important ally.
It's been decades since there was a serious challenge to the idea that the natural order of things is that the US and UK are as one on the matters that count. So it is easy to forget that for most of the last two centuries the two countries have frequently been "frenemies."
But now there is an issue that threatens the perfect calm: extradition — to be specific, the Extradition Act of 2003.
Passed by a Labour-dominated Parliament in the aftermath of 9/11, when the Relationship was at the height of its Specialness, the Extradition Treaty was supposed to make it easier for Britain to send jihadists arrested on British soil to the US, if a request was made.
But the treaty immediately became controversial because it was used as much against British businessmen and computer hackers as suspects in the War on Terror.
The most recent example is the case of Richard O'Dwyer, a graduate student in computer science, who American authorities want extradited to face charges of copyright infringement. O'Dwyer set up a website TVshack.net, a search engine, which listed sites where films and programs could be watched. He is not accused of streaming any himself.
If you go to the site now, a notice comes up saying the domain name has been seized by US Immigration and Customs Service. This is followed by a brief, professionally made (and kind of clever) anti-piracy video.
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The US request was granted by Britain's Home Secretary, Theresa May, last March. The controversy burst out again last week, when Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, launched a campaign in The Guardian newspaper to prevent the extradition by posting an online petition.
Wales notes that had O'Dwyer been arrested for similar crimes in Britain, the maximum sentence would be six months. In the US, he could serve 10 years, if convicted.
The disproportion in sentencing between the two countries is one reason the treaty is increasingly coming under fire. The other is the standard of proof required for an extradition request to be granted. The last extradition treaty — signed in 1870 when Britain was the global superpower — required the US to show it had a prima facie case against the person being extradited. The new one drops that to "reasonable suspicion."
This is an issue that cuts across party lines. The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, composed of members of all parties, called for the treaty to be renegotiated, although another parliamentary review found that there was no imbalance at all.
Typical of those raising questions is Conservative MP Dominic Raab. A self-described America lover and Atlanticist, he understands why fast-track extradition "might be a jolly good thing" when dealing with terror suspects, but feels "the pendulum has swung too far" in facilitating all manner of extradition requests.
He questions the low legal threshold these requests have to pass. He alludes to the O'Dwyer case, "If criminal conduct is alleged to take place in the UK and the UK courts aren't interested in prosecuting, why should American courts be allowed to prosecute a British citizen?" Raab adds, "We need sensible safe guards for our citizens."
Raab points out that regardless of whether a suspect is proven innocent, an extradition "destroys your life. If you take six months to two years to fight charges successfully, the expenses incurred are devastating."
American legal costs are much higher than those in Britain. Some Brits who have been extradited have struck a plea bargain rather than lose all their money. "But if you cop a plea bargain in return for a lighter sentence it still destroys your life," says Raab.
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There is another aspect of the extradition law that has Brits concerned: the fearsome reputation of American prisons. Their image as sinkholes of gang violence, homosexual rape and other kinds of depravity has spread around the planet via films and television.
This reputation was testified to recently by Gary Mulgrew, one of the NatWest Three — British bankers who were accused of a fraud related to Enron's collapse and extradited to Texas. The trio pleaded guilty to one count each in order to reduce their prison time.
Now Mulgrew has written an account of his time in Big Spring, Texas penitentiary. "Gang of One" appeared in the ultra-right wing Daily Mail earlier this year, with the headline, "This wasn't punishment. It was the Big Brother house with wall-to-wall psychos."
It spared readers none of the horrors of life inside.
It is articles like this — and the sense that somehow Britain is being bullied into sending for trial people the law was not intended to cover — that lead to calls for either the scrapping or renegotiation of the Extradition Treaty.
Enter the case of Gary McKinnon, accused of committing the biggest military hack of all time.
In 2001-2002, McKinnon is alleged to have hacked into US military and NASA computers a total of 97 times.
He was looking to prove the military and space agencies were hiding evidence of extraterrestrial life and alien technology.
Well McKinnon suffers from Asperger's syndrome. His computer expertise and rather strange obsession is offered as proof of his condition.
The size of the hack, however, has US prosecutors fuming. McKinnon could face up to 70 years in prison if tried in the US and convicted on all counts.
The 46-year-old's case is one of the hotter political potatoes British Prime Minister David Cameron has to handle. On July 5, McKinnon was offered another chance by Home Secretary May to have further medical tests before she makes her decision. Clearly, she wants to delay things for as long as possible, reports the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph.
If she chooses to interpret the treaty literally and send McKinnon to the US for trial, the "special relationship" will take a real beating here and the Conservative Party will pay the electoral price.