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The case of a hacker with Asperger's threatens the US-UK relationship

Britain resists extraditing cause celebre Gary McKinnon, who accessed Department of Defense computers.

Gary McKinnon
Briton Gary McKinnon leaves the High Court in central London on Jan. 20, 2009. (Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON, United Kingdom — Within the high gossip of state revealed in the WikiLeaks State Department cables being published this week is something that touches on one small, important story that has the ability to damage the relationship between the United States and Britain.

In a cable dated Oct. 6, 2009 at 16:46, America's Ambassador to Britain, Louis B. Susman, sent a long briefing memorandum to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was due to visit London four days later for meetings with British leaders including then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Among the many bullet points in Susman's memo regarding British views on important international treaties, relations with Pakistan and the upcoming British election is this one:

"- Gary McKinnon Extradition Case - The PM will likely raise with the Secretary (as he has with the Ambassador) the extradition case of Gary McKinnon. McKinnon is a 43-year old computer hacker with Asperger's Syndrome who is wanted for prosecution in the U.S.; he is accused of hacking into U.S. government systems in 2001 and 2002. McKinnon has gained enormous popular sympathy in his appeal against extradition; the UK's final decision is pending. The case has also caused public criticism of the U.S.-UK extradition treaty. In August, PM Brown, in a one-on-one meeting with the Ambassador, proposed a deal: that McKinnon plead guilty, make a statement of contrition, but serve any sentence of incarceration in the UK. Brown cited deep public concern that McKinnon, with his medical condition, would commit suicide or suffer injury in imprisoned in a U.S. facility. The Ambassador has raised this proposal with AG Holder and would be happy to brief the Secretary in more detail."

Brown's suggestion was rebuffed by the Obama Administration. In bringing up Gary McKinnon, Susman was doing his job properly. The McKinnon case is proving to be a serious problem in the "special relationship."

"The American legal system is bullying the British legal system and there are a lot of British lawyers who are angry about it," said Alex Carlile, lawyer, Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, and a key adviser to the current British government's attempts to prevent McKinnon's extradition to America. Both Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, are on the record as being against the extradition.

The basic facts of the McKinnon case are not in dispute. In 2001 and 2002, Gary McKinnon, now 44, a computer programmer from Glasgow, accessed NASA and Defense Department computers on more than 90 occasions. The United States claims he hacked his way into the systems, rendered one naval computer inoperable for several days, and copied files from others, causing $800,000 dollars worth of damage.

McKinnon claims he hacked into nothing. He gained entry into bits of the system without using a password. Indeed, he left messages after his visits pointing out how lousy the Defense Department security systems were. McKinnon says he was looking for information on extra-terrestrial life and UFOs,  as well as something else called "free energy." The fact that he used the moniker "Solo" — the surname of the wise-cracking hero of "Star Wars" — underlines the strange place he was coming from.

McKinnon was arrested in 2002 by British authorities. In 2003, Britain and the United States signed a new extradition treaty. In 2004, it was approved by Parliament. In 2005, extradition proceedings were initiated by the Federal District Court for eastern Virginia demanding Britain hand McKinnon over for trial.

A cause celebre was created.

McKinnon's mother, Janis Sharp, made a compelling public case expressing fear for her son's life if he was transferred to an American prison. He suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder, and also depression. She has organized a successful online information campaign.

The situation became a focus for anti-American sentiment that had been building in the United Kingdom as the post-war situation in Iraq went from bad to worse and the abuses of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition became widely publicized.

Over the years the question has crystallized. Newspapers not normally critical of America, particularly when a Republican is in the White House, asked why this young man, suffering from illness, should be sent to a country that has torn up the rule book on due process? The Conservative Daily Mail organized petitions demanding the government resist pressure from the United States to send McKinnon for trial.