Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Curious Incident Of A US Extradition In The Night

Guest post by Denis Campbell, editor of The UK Progressive.

Gary McKinnon of Crouch End, North London, England was branded a ‘cyber-terrorist’ by the US government and, in 2002, was arrested for hacking into Pentagon and NASA computers.

The US Justice, Defence and Homeland Security Departments have been fighting a seven-year long battle to extradite McKinnon to the USA where he is charged under the 2003 UK Extradition Act. If convicted on terrorism charges, he could face up to 60 years locked-down, 23-hour per day, in a US SuperMax prison. While many differ on likely length of sentence, this is the same kind of prison convicted shoe-bomber Richard Reid sits on a hunger strike hoping to kill himself. Gary openly admits his guilt of computer mischief and he did hack into US government computers.

Now before jumping to the obvious conclusion thinking “a (then) 36-year old man should know the difference between right and wrong” and setting your “fry him” righteous jaw and mind firmly shut, you need to look, Paul Harvey-style, at “The Rest of the Story.”

At 43, Gary has lived with an until-recently undiagnosed case of high-functioning autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome. The disease was first discovered and labelled in the late 1990s and was made famous in the 2003 best-selling novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Until the book, where a low functioning Asperger’s sufferer teenager sets off on a journey to find his dead mother, few ever heard of this syndrome. Famous Aspergers sufferers include American actor Dan Ackroyd and acclaimed Scottish artist Peter Howson – both of whom have spoken out on Gary ’s behalf.

Aspergers sufferers such as Gary make diagnosis more difficult because they often possess very high intelligence in specific areas such as math, computer science or physics. They are mostly reclusive and can become hyper-obsessive. One thinks of Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond in Rain Man as an example.

Gary’s mother, Janis Sharp, spoke of a Christmas dinner where he put a large computer on the family dining table and could not understand why everyone was so upset. His logical but insensitive response was “well it’s my holiday party too isn’t it?” Indeed, it is the honesty of an Asperger’s sufferer – “often to a fault” Janis said – “that can be to their own detriment.”

When Gary spoke to UK computer crimes authorities in 2002, he could only speak truth. This is also why plea deals are abhorrent because it means admitting guilt to something he feels is untrue. Without a lawyer present, he freely admitted to UK police to looking around in government computers of all kinds because, “They were very nice to him.”

At the centre of the growing row between the UK and US is a demand to have Gary stand trial in the US despite his diminished capacity. Many in the UK want him to stand trial here. They launched a successful UK campaign that Kevin Anderson, blogs editor of The Guardian, took exception to the media blindly taking McKinnon’s side in their coverage of the case. He objected to the myths of imprisonment in Gitmo, portrayal of US anger at his extradition fight and widely reported belief that US authorities wanted McKinnon to “fry.”

Not Innocent

No one is suggesting he is innocent.

They are talking degrees of punishment and the curious use of the 2003 Extradition Act, which gives the Crown Court little leeway and they must extradite UK nationals on ‘suspicion’ of terrorism; anyone the UK seeks for extradition residing in the US requires probable cause. Too, cases involving extradition normally involve someone who has committed a crime and has fled that jurisdiction and must be forcibly brought back to stand trial. Gary McKinnon never left the UK.

The problem is the Act has been used in the non-terror cases of Alex Stone, an alleged child abuser whose charges were dropped after spending 6 months in a US jail; Ian Norris of Morgan Crucible, whose original price-fixing charges were dropped but still faces extradition on obstruction of justice charges; and The NatWest 3, bankers extradited and found guilty of wire fraud – the government’s old mafia conviction standby charge. They currently serve 37 month sentences in US prisons.

Even David Blunkett, UK Home Secretary when the Act was negotiated and passed, never foresaw this level of interpretation and believes it should not be used in Gary’s case because, after 9/11, the Bush Administration labelled everything they could terrorism. Politicians here and in the US were not keen to attack these cases for fear of looking soft on terrorism. Too, this issue grabbed its biggest headlines after the Spanish and 7/7 London Tube terrorist bombings, so the issue was high on everyone’s mind.

Little Green Men

Gary McKinnon is completely obsessed with the existence of UFOs and convinced the government covered them up.

He is a self-described “bumbling computer nerd” who wanted to know more about them in the Pentagon files he hacked. He was a big fan of the 1983 feature film War Games where a youthful Matthew Broderick accidentally breaks into a Pentagon computer and nearly converts a war simulator into a real global thermonuclear war.

As a 17-year old boy, Gary wondered, could that really be done? When he and many others proved it indeed could be, especially after 9/11, McKinnon became the poster child for lax DoD computer security.

Many DoD and NASA computer systems lack firewall protections an,d as Gary has said repeatedly,“one could easily see the IP addresses of other hackers from China , Russia and other places around the globe whilst in there.”

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates noted that the Pentagon has thousands of cyber attacks daily on its systems. Gary became upset when he could not find what he was looking for and started leaving notes and traces of his entry calling the US government “liars” for discrediting the existence of UFOs and lax 9/11 air security.

His original UK charge in 2002 was not an extraditable offence. After passage of the Extradition Act and showing an unwillingness to plea bargain to a lesser offence, then federal prosecutors Scott Christie and Ed Gibson upped the ante claiming McKinnon caused more than $700,000 in damages, deleted passwords and put a Naval defence system at risk, all denied by Gary and his defence lawyers.

He was re-charged as a cyber terrorist when extradition prospects were seemed automatic under this new treaty.

Appeals to The House of Lords and EU Court of Human Rights were denied or not heard. This left Gary’s defence team with very few options.

But the Asperger’s diagnosis did two things: It opened the door for a judicial review of both the Crown Prosecution Service’s handling of the case, which was heard last week, and the Home Office’s recommendation of accepting such an unbalanced treaty.

Karen Todner of lBritish law firm Kaim Todner serves as Gary ’s lawyer. Mrs. Todner was tenacious on Gary ’s behalf and hired leading human rights solicitor Edward Fitzgerald. In his brief Fitzgerald said, "the decision (to extradite) is procedurally flawed and unlawful for it wrongly fails to consider and analyse important expert medical evidence concerning the effects of extradition on the claimant and his mental health."

This is the real game changer.

In many ways, Gary’s disease reveals an intellectually and emotionally naïve child locked in a man’s body. His mind is both his biggest friend and greatest enemy. As Scottish artist Peter Hoswon said in a Scotsman interview with Gerri Peev, "Gary has the more anxiety-prone form of Asperger's, which I fear means he will not be able to survive life in an American prison. I have to be blunt: he will not be able to cope and will turn suicidal. He is not a terrorist, nor a threat to national security, but just a vulnerable Asperger's man whose complex mind caused him to make a mistake. Individuals like Gary should be protected by us and nurtured, not made a scapegoat for the sins of our police state society."

Gary’s curiosity took him to the place of trying to see if he could do it. Aspergers sufferers tend to believe what they read or hear and their desire for truth is so strong it overcomes all other rational thoughts and emotions. Indeed as he became more and more obsessed with the UFO conspiracy, his then girlfriend became very concerned for his well-being as Gary stopped caring for himself, even stopping eating and bathing – all hallmarks of Aspergers.

The legions of supporters for Gary include Peter Gabriel, Sting, US Shuttle Commander Clark McCleland, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, former Iranian hostage Terry Waite, Peter Gabriel and Graham Nash of Crosby Stills and Nash, along with dozens of MPs and celebrities.

The US has a flawed history of understanding or even admitting mental illness in court. Because of this lack of understanding, prosecutors fight it tooth and nail. A defendant found not guilty by reason of insanity goes down in the loss column.

It taints a prosecutor’s record to have someone sent to an institution or psychiatric prison facility. A federal prosecutor speaking on condition of anonymity said, “Having a defendant found not guilty by reason of temporary or true insanity hurts the prosecutor. We need big winning records in high profile cases to move up the ladder politically or find top security positions when we leave …” (Indeed Gibson and Christie now run security across the UK for Microsoft Corporation).

“It’s tough to become a top paid white shoe firm white collar criminal defence attorney or be elected as a District Attorney or state Attorney General without a solid record of conviction in high profile cases,” this US prosecutor said.

As his mother, Janis, said, “People with Asperger’s are highly intelligent but cannot cross a busy road because it is so terrifying for them. Asperger’s is invisible in many ways and its sufferers can seem incredibly normal. The Pentagon had no firewalls or security, that’s an insult to the people who died on 9/11. How could the biggest superpower in the world not have firewalls? Gary was stupid, he left notes on the system but why extradite him because of a sense of embarrassment?”

If convictions are the yardstick upon which a prosecutor can strut, the question becomes should an impaired person be extradited to face horrific charges where a sentence in the UK would be more proportional?


KevGlobal said...

Denis, just to clarify, I have written about this case for the Guardian. However, the post that you've linked to is on my personal blog and are my personal views. I need to make the disclaimer a little stronger on my personal blog, but I just wanted to make it clear.

As an American working for British media since 1998, I can understand the coverage in terms of upset over what was seen as an unfair extradition treaty, much of which was remedied after the Natwest case.

Let me be clarify one point: The length of his sentence. A quick call to the prosecuting attorney in the case of even quoting the AP coverage would make it clear that McKinnnon is not facing 60 years in prison. In Lord Brown's ruling against McKinnon's request for a stay of extradition, he wrote:

"On this basis it was likely that a sentence of 3-4 years (more precisely 37-46 months), probably at the shorter end of that bracket, would be passed and that after serving 6-12 months in the US, the appellant would be repatriated to complete his sentence in the UK."

British judges have stated this. The US attorney in charge of prosecuting this case has stated the length of the sentence as less than four years, not 60. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.

Kevin Anderson

Denis Campbell said...

Thank you Kevin for your response and do note that this article appears here on Charley’s blog today as well as, Huffington Post, (my publication),, Facebook, Friendfeed and Twitter

I will be happy to update the article and make sure that you as author from the blog and not connected to The Guardian. Simply, you came up during my research and that was how you described yourself on the blog.

While I agree to a point with your sentencing assertion there are too many “wild cards” and other case history that for space reasons did not make it into the article. I assure you neither pulled the figure out of thin air nor simply bought into the McKinnon/Sharp version of the case. While UK sentencing estimates may look good, US sentencing guidelines are closer to 70 years if he is labeled a terrorist and thus convicted. In my research, I looked at other extraditions and/or prosecutions of UK nationals, others labeled as “terrorists” or those suffering from mental illness in the US .

In conversation with two Federal prosecutors Gary faces charges in two jurisdictions and because he did not cooperate the first time could (emphasis on could) be viewed with much more hostility on the part of prosecutors in both.

The cases of Billy Cotrell, eco-terrorist; Chantal McCorkle, infomercial fraud (not allowed repatriation to UK to serve sentence and was kept in higher security and deemed a flight risk), Aaron Caffrey, Port Houston computer hacker, death row inmate Andre Thomas, a young man who pulled out and ate his own eye, the Blakely and Booker US Supreme Court case on sentencing guidelines and others… coupled with having worked in the US Justice system for two very prominent solicitor firms and sought the advice of former colleagues on this article, no one could give me any reason from that side of the Pond to minimize my sentence expectation.

Simply, the longer he fights, the angrier they get and the more he loses.

Thanks though for your thoughtful reply. I will post this thread after Charley does on the other locations and anything you add further in reply.

All the best,

Denis Campbell

Anonymous said...

Could you do us all a favour (us being people on the autism spectrum) please don't call it a disease.

Also - please could you make it clearer that Autism and therefore Asperger's is on a spectrum - we aren't all the same, we don't all react the same way, we don't all have the same funcionalty or lack of it. It's hard enough explaining to people that, yes I am intelligent and yes I do function fairly well in society (mostly) but yes I do have Asperger's, without explaining why I'm not like this or that person they read about in the news.

And finally - Rainman has full Autism not Asperger's, your post doesn't seem to make that clear but suggests that Rainman is an Aspie.

Thank you.

And before I forget - thank you for taking up arms on Gary's behalf.