The Troubling Case of Gary McKinnon

I don’t often find myself agreeing with both the Daily Mail and Theresa May, but credit where it’s due, the government was right to throw-out the extradition of Gary McKinnon to the USA.

However, it is worth specifying why I agree. It is not, as Theresa May states, right to block it only because McKinnon has Asperger’s syndrome and is clinically depressed (although this in no way counts against him). Rather, this extradition should never have been considered in the first place, whatever his mental state.

Gary McKinnon has never been to the USA. He has never committed a crime in the USA. Technically he has committed a crime in the UK - unauthorised access to a computer network. Between 2001 and 2002, from his bedroom in his parents house, he accessed 97 computers in the US without authorisation. The maximum penalty for this in the UK is two years in prison. The CPS decided that in McKinnon’s case it was not in the public interest to prosecute.

McKinnon managed to break into the US computers because the US military hadn’t even implemented basic security precautions - the passwords on all of the systems involved had either been left blank or at their default settings. McKinnon left messages on the systems pointing-out the weak security, but, crucially, did not steal confidential information or sabotage the US systems in any way. The only real ‘damage’ to the US military was egg on their faces once it was revealed how appalling their security was.

This is a crucial point. The US military are claiming that McKinnon’s actions have resulted in $800,000 of damage, yet what this amount actually covers is the work securing the systems as they should have been secured in the first place if competent people had been running them. If anything, they were lucky it was harmless McKinnon who revealed their incompetence, rather than someone who had more malicious intentions. In the eyes of the US though, the offence is the same - they want to try McKinnon as a terrorist, and potentially lock him up for the rest of his life. And remember, this is for doing something that would result in a maximum of two years in prison under the jurisdiction of the UK, where he lives.

So Theresa May was right to refuse extradition, but not because he has Aspergers - she should refuse it because it is blatantly unjust. The extradition treaty with the US is completely one-sided, with the US not even having to provide any evidence to the UK courts. Just think about what that means for a moment. On the say-so of a foreign government, any one of us can in theory be shipped-off to a life in prison in another country for a ‘crime’ we didn’t even commit on their soil.

Can you imagine the reaction of the US if we asked for one of their citizens on the same basis? Not that the treaty allows that, of course, but assuming it did, do you think they would say yes? The US is of course a country that refuses to recognise the International Criminal Court, putting it in the same boat as such paragons of virtue as Israel and Sudan. The map of countries who aren’t members of the ICC shows the sort of company that the US is in.

This isn’t just theoretical. US citizens accused of far worse than McKinnon are rapidly brought back to the US before they can face justice, and those are where they have actually committed the crime in the foreign country. A quick review of the 1998 Cavalese cable car disaster and various events in Iraq and Afghanistan might remind you of this.

The debate in the Commons after Theresa May’s announcement is also pretty shaming for Labour. It is their nasty authoritarian streak that resulted in the extradition arrangement in the first place (the Extradition Act of 2003), and they didn’t redeem themselves last week. Alan Johnson said “Gary McKinnon is accused of very serious offences. The US was perfectly within its rights, and it was extremely reasonable of them, to seek his extradition. We now do not know whether Gary McKinnon will ever have to face justice on those accusations … The home secretary has made a decision today that’s in her own party’s best interest; it is not in the best interests of the country.” Really? Who is being political here, opposing government actions purely for opposition’s sake?

On the contrary, this is perhaps May’s best action since becoming Home Secretary, and she’s done it using the Human Rights Act - something the Tories despise. Let’s hope that she can now look into the case of Richard O’Dwyer, who faces extradition to the US on copyright infringement charges. He ran the TVShack Web site which, despite the site containing no copyrighted material, is judged by US authorities to infringe since it contained links to places where people can watch TV online. Authorities in the US wish to imprison him for 10 years for something which isn’t even a crime in the UK. It’s time for this madness to end.