GARY McKinnon’s long nightmare, which began ten years ago with an obsession about UFOs and led to him hacking into Nato and American defence computers and being charged by US authorities with trying to intimidate and coerce the Washington government, is over. Almost.
The Director of Public Prosecutions has decided that there is no reasonable chance of obtaining a guilty verdict in a trial, and has therefore ended legal proceedings, lifting the threat of prosecution hanging over Mr McKinnon’s head. This is a huge relief to Mr McKinnon and his mother, and a suitable time for reflection for the legal authorities on both sides of the Atlantic.
What made this a cause celèbre is the fact that Mr McKinnon, a number of experienced psychiatrists have avowed, suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. This is a form of autism in which the sufferer, while having well-developed language and other mental capabilities, lacks understanding of social rules and norms while having an intense preoccupation with a narrow interest.
In 2001, while without a regular job and depressed, he began searching for evidence of UFOs which, like many such obsessives, he thought was being kept hidden from public eyes by the US government. In 2002, he was arrested, having apparently hacked into 97 computer systems including that of the Pentagon and, according to US authorities, causing network shutdowns and causing damage estimated at $800,000.
Beyond various messages he left equating US foreign policy with “government-sponsored terrorism” (a charge quite a few Americans, such as Professor Noam Chomsky, make of their own government) and the occasional threat of further disruption, no proof of hostile activity emerged.
On the contrary, all the evidence suggests that Mr McKinnon was what his mother and doctors said, a lonely and unhappy obsessive with a gift for using computers. Nevertheless, Washington determinedly pursued him, accusing him of actions “calculated to influence and affect the US government by intimidation and coercion”. Does anyone seriously believe that now? That Mr McKinnon could have faced 60 years in prison added further to feelings of injustice.
The US authorities should have recognised the medical evidence, understood that dragging him across the Atlantic would have severely damaged his health and settled for a trial in London. That won’t happen now, which is the right decision. But Mr McKinnon’s life is not yet back to normal. He is stuck in the UK with the threat of a trial in the US should he step out of the country. The US has not dropped the charges.
There is a saying that justice delayed is justice denied. Gary McKinnon’s punishment has been disproportionate to his crime. Barack Obama, if he wishes to restore America’s reputation, should grant a pardon.
The price of a ruined career
Helen McGlone, a gifted young woman with expectations of a high-flying career and all the best that life could bring, found that cast aside when she was diagnosed by Swiss doctors in 2008 of having cervical cancer. Dreadful enough for any woman, Ms McGlone’s distress was all the greater for knowing that tests for the disease in 2005 and 2006 conducted by doctors working for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde had been ruled clear, when a pre-cancerous condition should have been detected.
The health authority did not dispute that mistakes had been made, but argued that the size of the compensation sought by Ms McGlone, who fielded testimony on her behalf contending that she may have lost career earnings of between £15 million and £20m, was disproportionate
To many people, it might seem an overly large sum. But to Ms McGlone, who had first-class degrees in maths, physics and particle physics, sufficiently impressive to win her a job working at the home of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, and who had aspirations to go into investment banking, it was a reasonable sum.
The Court of Session judge, Lord Bannatyne, rejected arguments that Ms McGlone’s dreams of a lucrative career were a certainty, but in awarding £2m in compensation clearly accepted that she would have been, and perhaps may still be, a high- earner. Her lawyers, however, seem to think the award astonishingly low, and are considering an appeal. To the observer, Lord Bannatyne looks to have got it about right. Ms McGlone is absolutely deserving of our sympathy, and authorities do have to be held to account, but the many variables in life make calculations of future earnings simply a guess.