Can a harmless UFO obsessive stricken by autism be saved from 70 years in a brutal American jail?
The fate of self-confessed 'bumbling computer nerd' and UFO spotter Gary McKinnon - who faces extradition to the U.S. and a possible 70-year prison sentence after hacking into 97 military and Nasa computers - hangs in the balance.
In just a few days, this softly-spoken 43-year- old, who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome (a form of autism), will go to the High Court in London for a judicial review that might allow him to appeal again against his extradition. This will be his last chance to stop the British Government sending him for trial in the U.S., where, if found guilty, he could spend what's left of his life in a maximum security jail in New Jersey. McKinnon's crime was to hack into U.S. military computers in a naive attempt to unearth secrets about the existence of alien life.
It was thoughtless technological vandalism, certainly. Yet in an astonishingly heavy-handed campaign, the U.S. authorities have sought to have McKinnon extradited using an agreement to aid the prosecution of terror suspects. His case hasn't gone unnoticed.
A bandwagon of celebrities who wouldn't disgrace an A-list party have lined up to campaign for the cause of this Glaswegian-born geek, who has been fascinated by UFOs since the age of ten. Sting, actress Julie Christie, Terry Waite, the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, Jane Asher, Peter Gabriel, Tony Benn, former Home Secretary David Blunkett - not to mention Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne and The Proclaimers - have all expressed their heartfelt sympathies. It's astonishing that such a case has become such a cause celebre.
McKinnon is gaunt, shy and naive - a very unlikely hero. Julie Christie has written to the Home Secretary expressing her hope that he 'will not become yet another victim of the American judicial system'. Terry Waite says 'common sense' is needed because McKinnon's mental condition made him 'irrationally obsessive'.
He also asks: 'Was Gary a spy? Was he attempting to bring down the mighty military force of the U.S.? 'As far as I know, he was not. He was simply looking for little green men.' Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has argued: 'It is brutal, mad and wrong even to consider sending this man to America for trial.
'How can the British Government be so protoplasmic, so pathetic, so heedless of the well-being of its own people, as to sign a warrant for his extradition?' Former Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour has also sung in support of McKinnon on a compilation CD and rock band Marillion have promised to play at a concert backing the hacker. But when McKinnon finally appears on the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice, his celebrity backers will mean little as he faces judgment accompanied by just his mother, Janis, and solicitor Karen Todner. Despite the sympathy, the family are not exactly awash with financial donations from their famous supporters.
Indeed, McKinnon's 'Free Gary' campaign website was financed by a family friend. Janis is the one keeping up her frail son's spirits.
The heartbreak of their seven-year legal battle has certainly taken its toll - McKinnon even attempted suicide, believing his parents would be better off without him. 'It's brought the whole family to the brink of despair,' Janis says. 'Gary's life is in ruins. He has panic attacks. He jumps out of his skin when the doorbell goes - and that's apart from his problems with Asperger's.' But how did it come to this?
Caught up in his obsession with aliens - and given to smoking cannabis and staying up late into the night - McKinnon's crime was that over a period of two years, starting in 2000, he used his home computer in North London to infiltrate, examine and, allegedly, crash parts of the U.S. military computer network, before and after the 9/11 attacks in New York. The actions of this gentle man have been called 'the biggest military computer hack of all time' - even though the U.S. is supposed to have the most sophisticated computer security systems in the world. At one point, McKinnon was even alleged to have wiped important files at the Earle Naval Weapons Station near New Jersey, paralysing munitions supply for the U.S. Atlantic fleet.
He's also alleged to have shut down 2,000 Army computers for 24 hours - posting a notice on the military website saying: 'Your security is cr*p.' The Americans are, unsurprisingly, furious. 'This was a gross intrusion into a vital military computer system at a time when we, as a nation, had to summon all our resources against further attack,' explained one Assistant U.S. Attorney.
Enlarge Suspicion: Gary McKinnon hacked into the U.S. military computer network before and after the 9/11 attacks The trouble is, McKinnon didn't stop there. Once he'd started hacking, he couldn't stop. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, McKinnon went so far as to post a message on the website under his online pen name 'SOLO'. It read: 'U.S. foreign policy is akin to government-sponsored terrorism these days . . . It was not a mistake that there was a huge security standdown on September 11 last year. . . I am SOLO. I will continue to disrupt at the highest levels.' U.S. authorities now allege that McKinnon caused £;500,000 worth of damage to their computers, a charge he fiercely denies. Despite his denials, as one attorney put it: 'There are some Americans who want to see Gary fry.' McKinnon was caught when investigators traced software he used back to his girlfriend's email account. The British police first knocked on his door in 2002.
Initially, the authorities were laid-back about the supposed cyber-terrorist in their midst. 'Don't worry,' police told him, 'There's no evidence that you've caused any damage. You're looking at six months community service.' 'They also said that, out of all the computers they'd examined, Gary was one of the only people whose computer had no pornography on it,' his mother tells me with a faint smile.
They even suggested he might try for a job in their high-tech unit once the case was over - so great were his computer skills. McKinnon has never claimed innocence - indeed, quite the opposite. 'What I did was illegal and wrong, and I accept I should be punished.
'But I am not a member of Al-Qaeda and I am not a terrorist. The American reaction has been out of all proportion. They want to destroy me.' The British Crown Prosecution declined to press charges against him after this first arrest - but that didn't deter the American authorities.
They started to press hard for his extradition. The hacker posted messages mocking the 'cr*p' security of the American military computer system In June 2005, he was re-arrested and sent to Brixton prison. 'Gary was held overnight in a cell with a Scottish murderer,' Janis tells me. 'He was beside himself.' The following morning, McKinnon was taken to court. 'I could see he was terrified,' says his stepfather, Wilson Sharp.
'I thought "He's not going to survive being locked up."
'He's a gentle guy. He's a vegetarian and a pacifist - a musician. I was so relieved when he was given bail.' But the bail was to cost McKinnon dear. One of the conditions of his freedom was that he could not use a computer to connect to the internet - a terrible blow for a man who lived with a keyboard in front of him day and night, often sitting in front of his computer in his dressing gown, drinking beer. His notoriety also cost him his relationship with his girlfriend, Tamsin, saw him kicked out of two different flats, and lose a string of jobs. He now lives on benefits in rented accommodation. But one good thing did come out of McKinnon's notoriety.
In 2007, after he appeared on television to argue his case against extradition, his behaviour onscreen led a string of medical experts - including Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University, one of the world's leading authorities on autism - to contact the show's producers to suggest that he could have Asperger's Syndrome. The experts pointed out that McKinnon's monotone voice, his lack of hand expressions and his 'overly literal' view of the world were all symptoms of the condition. It all made sense to Janis.
She remembered that Gary had been an introverted and sensitive child who taught himself to play the piano by the age of seven. 'One day, we came in to find him playing the Moonlight Sonata,' she recalls. 'He spent all his time composing music alone in his room.' As McKinnon grew up, so he retreated farther and farther into his obsessive world, launching a life-long obsession with aliens - joining the British UFO Research Association at the age of ten.
It was this obsession that led McKinnon to hack into the military computer systems.
He was convinced that the Pentagon and Nasa had secret evidence of extra-terrestrial life.
Deluded, even a little mad you might think, but hardly the hallmark of a terrorist. Yet American authorities clearly want to send a message to the computer hackers of the world - and are using McKinnon to do it. McKinnon says: 'I would gladly face trial in the UK now under the Computers Misuse Act. Britain is the only country in the world that will extradite its own nationals without prima facie evidence.' His newly-discovered medical condition forms the basis of this last High Court appeal, in an attempt to establish whether his condition had an impact on his actions - and whether a lengthy period of imprisonment might damage his frail psyche. Janis remains hopeful. 'Gary's Asperger's doesn't excuse what he did, because if you commit a crime, you commit a crime. 'But I would say to both Gordon Brown and David Cameron: you both know about having young, vulnerable sons.
'Should we really be extraditing our vulnerable adults and letting them serve so long abroad? Seventy years for looking for UFOs?
'Gary just wants to be tried in his own country.' But right now, McKinnon is 'just waiting', according to his mother. 'The only thing that is getting him through is cooking,' she says.
'He loves to cook vegetarian food. He is so precise. Each mushroom has to be cut to exactly the same size. Right now, that's what keeps him together.' As for Janis, all she can do is spend every minute of the day campaigning for him.
'We've been told of stun guns and male rape in these American penitentiaries. 'I have awful nightmares of what will happen to Gary in one of those hell-holes.' She now pins all her hopes on the judicial appeal.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of her son's actions, it is heart-rending to hear the desperation in her voice as she speaks of her son's future. When her bewildered boy walks into the High Court, the only people who can save him from an American maximum security jail, and the possibility of life behind bars, are the judges on the bench. -----------------------------------
how we can help him????
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