October 16 2013 marked the one year anniversary of Theresa May’s statement to the House of Commons confirming that the UK would not be extraditing Gary McKinnon on charges of hacking to the United States as “a decision to extradite would be incompatible with McKinnon’s human rights.”
One year later and the woman who led that campaign for ten years – Janis Sharp, Gary McKinnon’s mother – is sat in front of me smiling a very broad smile. “It’s relief, just relief.”
Since that day, Janis has been working on her book, Saving Gary McKinnon. “I wanted to write the book to bring out the human story behind all the politics.”
For those who are unfamiliar with the story of Gary McKinnon, well, where have you been? In 2002, Gary McKinnon was arrested for hacking into the computers of NASA and the Pentagon. At the time US officials considered this “the greatest military hack of all time” but in truth this was nothing of the sort.
Gary McKinnon was a UFO enthusiast sat at his home computer in North London. Curious, he went phishing in US Department of Defense systems for evidence of contact with aliens. What he found was a security system not worthy of the name. Passwords were either non-existent or so basic e.g. ‘password’ that any script could have got past their defences. You didn’t need to be an expert hacker to achieve this – and Gary was no hacker.
Gary stole no files and revealed no secrets. He was no Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden. Instead he searched for months on US networks for information on UFOs. He made no lasting damage. In fact he did the US a favour by exposing how weak their security system was in the post 9/11 age.
As Janis wryly observed, “If Gary had been capable of bringing the US military to its knees from his very basic home computer and a dial-up connection, then God help the planet.”
But Gary’s timing was terrible. This was post-9/11 and the US was on edge. Gary had embarrassed America, exposing their profound failings. As a result, the US authorities pursued him with all the vindictiveness for which they since have become well known – if Gary was extradited, he was facing 60 years in jail. Some even wanted the death penalty for him.
And the British authorities, so keen to kowtow to their American allies, seemed only too eager to hand him over. A controversial extradition treaty was signed in 2003 but the government decided to enact this retrospectively to allow McKinnon to be covered.
The politics of Gary’s case are laid bare in Janis’ extraordinary account. Series of Home Secretaries conspired to get the Courts to extradite Gary on the basis of the 2003 Act despite the Act not being in place at the time of the alleged crime and despite the fact that Gary was assured of not getting a fair trial (the US Attorney General had already appeared on television declaring Gary guilty).
From the outside, it seems impossible how anyone could fathom a successful campaign against such overwhelming odds, but such is the power of a mother’s love. Saving Gary McKinnon brings out the impact that this very public battle had on her family and her son, and some of their extraordinary experiences.
Janis pursued a relentlessly high profile campaign to keep her son in the UK and won some influential supporters, including Paul Dacre, Editor of the Daily Mail. The result was that her son’s case never left the headlines, forcing politicians to listen to her though they so desperately wanted her to leave them alone.
There’s much humour in Janis’ recollections such as requests from the Home Office to stop writing to them “as the volume of mail from Gary’s supporters was stopping them getting on with their work,” and similarly from Nick Clegg’s office (a supporter of the campaign) “to remove their email address from our website as they could not cope with the volume of emails in support of Gary.”
But that aside, there were also some shady experiences. One of Gary’s lawyers had evidence on his laptop relating to statements from US officials – this laptop was stolen from his car. Also, a file containing the notes of a meeting Gary’s legal team had in the US Embassy disappeared from the lawyers’ offices. But more worrying was when Janis found a tracker device on the underside of her car.
Worse, Gary’s mental health was disintegrating rapidly as his thoughts became consumed with violent nightmares and suicide. A vulnerable man was cracking up under immense pressure.
That Gary was suicidal was known, but Janis’ revelations in the book that he had become almost catatonic, and that he had been buying potassium chloride, an ingredient in lethal injections, are heart-breaking.
Yet it was a rare interview that Gary gave at this time that changed the course of events irrevocably. In a TV interview, Gary’s behaviour seemed unusual. After the interview was aired, Gary’s lawyers were inundated with calls from the public who thought he showed many traits of having Asperger’s and advised them to get Gary assessed. They did and the diagnosis followed immediately.
That her son was diagnosed with Asperger’s would be difficult for any mother but for Janis, “the diagnosis explained so much about Gary’s behaviour that we had just misunderstood.”
The Asperger’s diagnosis made it almost impossible for British politicians to extradite Gary – the risk to his health was now very real and could not be argued away. Without that diagnosis, Janis was blunt on the alternative. “Gary wouldn’t have made it.”
Janis Sharp’s book is a wonderful insight into the story behind the headlines – and it was very brave of her to be so open about the impact on her and her family. But it is very hard to read Saving Gary McKinnon and feel any sense of pride at the British justice system. That Janis had to fight so hard for so long to save her son is one of the more shameful episodes in recent British politics.
But Gary McKinnon’s experience shows just what is at stake if we are unable to stand against overwhelming US pressure. Janis writes “Without leaders who have the guts to make their own decisions, democracy could be all but lost.”
That it took the breakdown of a vulnerable man in the face of such a violently disproportionate response to bring the government to its senses is a shame that should never happen again. Janis agrees. “To change the extradition treaty, to prevent this ever happening again to any other British person, would give Gary comfort that his suffering had not been in vain.”
Saving Gary McKinnon: A Mother’s Story available now (£18.99, Biteback Publishing)
This article is also available on the Huffington Post UK website.