Ex-hostage Waite joins calls for hacker to be spared US trial

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TERRY Waite, the former Beirut hostage, has urged the United States to drop charges against Scots-born computer hacker Gary McKinnon – and instead thank him instead for exposing weaknesses in its online security.

Mr Waite, who became a human rights campaigner after his four-year ordeal in Lebanon, said the Pentagon should be grateful for the vulnerabilities in the US government IT flagged up by Mr McKinnon.

The Glasgow-born hacker is facing extradition for breaking into US government systems using his dial-up modem. Mr McKinnon insists he was trawling for evidence for UFOs and managed to get into systems that had little protection.

He has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, and campaigners fear he would be suicidal in prison.

Mr Waite said Mr McKinnon's illness made him "irrationally obsessive" and it was a "waste of time" to pursue him.

"The Pentagon ought to thank him for exposing the vulnerability of their systems," he said.

"More importantly, the accused suffers from Asperger's syndrome and no nation under the sun ought to convict an individual whose behaviour is occasioned by illness."

He added: "Was Gary a spy? Was he attempting to bring down the mighty military force of the USA? As far as I know he was not. He was simply looking for little green men."

Mr McKinnon faces up to 70 years in prison if convicted in the United States of sabotaging vital defence systems in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Janis Sharp, his mother, said she was thankful for the support of Mr Waite. "I feel as though Gary and our family have been hostages for the past seven years, so it's wonderful that a man like Terry Waite has spoken out for Gary," she said.

Ms Sharp has also written to Barack Obama, the US president, pleading for him to reverse the decision, which was made under George Bush's administration.

The family is awaiting a judicial review of the decision by the Home Secretary to extradite Mr McKinnon.

Peter Howson, the Scottish artist who also has Asperger's syndrome, said he believed Mr McKinnon would kill himself if he was extradited.

Mr Howson, who has completed a series of portraits of Mr McKinnon, added: "He won't even make it to the airport.

"I am prepared to do anything I can to help Gary because I think his life is at risk and I am so angry over this decision."

Rock star Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, have also written to the Home Secretary, backing his case against extradition.

Lawyers for Mr McKinnon are dismayed at the decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions not to block his extradition. They say the UK has failed to request what evidence the US holds against him.

His family want Mr McKinnon to face trial in the UK, and have pointed to the case of a hacker caught at about the same time who was spared extradition.