Friday, 18 December 2009 00:00
You probably don’t know who Gary McKinnon is, but to millions of people in Great Britain, he has become a cause celebre that has united elements of the political right, left and center and threatens to seriously damage the image of the United States abroad. It is front-page news in every British newspaper, but has barely made a dent in the compliant American media. But when I tell you who he is, you may say, “Oh, yeah,” because what he did in 2001 and 2002 made a splash in our news and in the monologues of late night comedians.
Gary McKinnon is the guy in England who, obsessed with finding information about UFOs and aliens, hacked into 97 NASA and Navy computers. Using simple technology, McKinnon found some of the Pentagon computers completely unprotected, and some with passwords left in place. He left messages warning of the poor security on the screens of computers to which he’d gained access.
The Pentagon claims that it had to spend over half a million dollars to fix things afterward, which is heatedly disputed by McKinnon and computer experts on both sides of the ocean (“beyond the realms of imagination” is how Scotland’s leading blogger puts it). What McKinnon did do was skim through classified memos and documents. Because he did not make copies or record what he saw, it’s up to us to believe or disbelieve what he says he saw. This includes alleged references to a vast, secret military space program, the withholding of secret energy technology and other things some feel no government has a right to suppress.
McKinnon openly admitted what he did. Three years went by. The U.K. and the U.S. implemented a new treaty agreement on the extradition of terror suspects, and our government formally requested McKinnon’s extradition. In the United States, he would face up to 70 years in maximum security prison.
If this was all part of some cable television show, our military would have hired him as a security expert. But it isn’t.
Complicating the situation further is the fact that McKinnon is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that impairs normal social interaction and which often displays itself in obsessive interests, such as trying to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life. America’s poor track record of justice for those with disabilities has become a focal point in the situation. After all, some American governors who have allowed the execution of mentally impaired prisoners have been elected president. The day before this is being written, a New Jersey psychiatrist submitted statements attesting that our federal penal system does not have the facilities to treat McKinnon’s condition. It’s in every English-language paper I can find, in Europe.
Many in Britain believe that McKinnon will receive a fairer trial, fairer sentence and more humane treatment in the United Kingdom, where his crimes were actually committed.
It is clear that nobody but embarrassed officials in our federal government sees the utterly nonviolent Gary McKinnon as a terrorist.
At the end of November, the British Home Secretary approved the extradition, and the Brown government was scalded from all sides for caving in again to the United States (“Grotesque, cruel, callous, unnecessary…” wrote one commentator). This is England, our closest ally in the world. For those who are baffled over why President Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize just for sounding like he was setting a new standard of cooperation, the McKinnon situation is a chance to really drink in how peeved the planet has become at our government over the last decade.
Doctors insist McKinnon is suicidal and that incarceration in the American prison system, away from any social support structure, will be a death sentence. His lawyers are attempting one last legal Hail Mary play over the next few weeks.
Here’s a chance for President Obama to show, in a small way, that he isn’t a Nobel Laureate just for words. Here’s a chance, during this special season, to show the world and our closest friends that Americans have not lost an important quality. In an act of simple human mercy, the president should order an end to the extradition of Gary McKinnon.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org