U.K. Will Not Extradite Alien-Hunting Hacker With Asperger’s Who Broke Into NASA, Military Computers

Janis Sharp, the mother of British computer hacker Gary McKinnon, at a press conference following a decision not to extradite her son

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

About 10 years ago, a British man named Gary McKinnon was using the Internet for one of its oldest purposes: looking for information about government cover-ups of UFOs. But McKinnon took it further than most. He used his considerable computer skills to hack into NASA and military computers to find evidence of aliens.

Now, a years-long battle over whether McKinnon, who has Asperger’s syndrome and depression, should be sent to the United States to answer for his intrusions into government computers has come to an end. But that doesn’t mean he’s officially off the hook.

U.S. law enforcement claims that McKinnon wasn’t harmlessly searching for aliens—he damaged critical military systems, not long after Sept. 11, no less. In 2004, the United States officially requested that he be extradited. (The Guardian has a thorough timeline of the McKinnon case.)

In the years since, McKinnon has fought the extradition order, claiming that it would violate his human rights because he suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Finally, today, Home Secretary Theresa May, who was tasked with determining whether to ship him off, announced that he will be staying put. In her statement, she said:

Mr. McKinnon is accused of serious crimes, but there is also no doubt that he is seriously ill. He has Asperger’s syndrome and suffers from depressive illness. The legal question before me is now whether the extent of that illness is sufficient to preclude extradition. … I have concluded that Mr. McKinnon’s extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that the decision to extradite would be incompatible with his human rights. I have therefore withdrawn the extradition order against Mr. McKinnon. It will now be for the director of public prosecution to decide whether Mr. McKinnon has a case to answer in a U.K. court.

May also proposed radically changing the way Britain handles requests for extradition, following years of heated debate over whether a 2003 extradition treaty with the United States was too “one-sided.”

Part of the debate over McKinnon has centered on whether it was his Asperger’s syndrome that compelled him to obsessively hack into government computers. “Is it fair to punish him for the combined impact of 100 separate crimes just because his compulsion played out in so many episodes? … [D]efense lawyers have successfully argued that people with Asperger’s may not be in control of their collecting tendencies and could easily find themselves in the maximum sentencing category,” Erica Westly wrote for Slate in 2009 in an article titled “The Geek Defense.”

But May’s decision was focused less on what caused McKinnon to get himself into such mischief and more on how he would react—as she said in her statement, she believes the evidence suggests that he very probably would attempt suicide.

Meanwhile, another British citizen with Asperger’s—Talha Ahsan, who is accused of running jihadi websites—was recently ordered extradited to the United States. Experts have testified that Ahsan, too, could harm himself if locked up in an American “supermax” prison—but apparently he wasn’t considered as high a suicide risk as McKinnon. What was a victory for McKinnon already seems to have complicated international discussions about who, exactly, is fit for trial, and for punishment.

On Oct. 22, Future Tense will be hosting an event in Washington, D.C., to discuss how the judicial system can—and should—respond as neuroscientists and other experts increasingly determine that people’s brains and genes may make them more inclined to commit crime. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation website.