A SPECIAL relationship exists, so they say, between the United Kingdom and the United States.
This tends to come as news to American politicians disdainful of socialistic NHS-loving "Brits". The reality of the sentimental arrangement might surprise a few people on this side of the Atlantic, too.
How many CIA agents are at work in this country, for example? More than you might imagine. There's one who "sits in" each week on the meetings of our Joint Intelligence Committee, but numerous others are out and about, running networks of agents in the British Pakistani community, the prime source – so the Americans contend – of threats to the US. According to reports in 2009, fully 40% of the CIA's anti-terrorist activity now takes place in Britain.
Is that troubling? Merely sensible? More to the point, how would someone like Mitt Romney respond to the news that MI6 was swarming over the lives of American citizens? You don't have to guess. Unlike certain small island groups, the Americans are very particular about their sovereignty.
That's the real difficulty of the relationship forged, for the most part, by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. It operates, or not, almost entirely at America's pleasure. Britain is flattered by talk of a common heritage. We are handed a few commercial morsels and treated to affectionate caricatures. But actual influence over America's behaviour? That delusion drew Tony Blair into the Iraq debacle.
We are allowed to buy or rent American nuclear devices. BAE Systems is a privileged client – with all that implies – of the Pentagon. We sign up dutifully for any and every war. A lot of trade goes back and forth and the big American banks are especially fond of the liberties enjoyed – let's leave it at that – by the City of London. But a partnership of equals? That is, in the American view, a silly notion.
Gary McKinnon, unworldly as he may be, understands better than most that Britons get precious few favours from the cousins these days. If we co-operate promptly, all is well. If we step out of line, as America would have it, the rage is audible all the way across the Atlantic.
Alleged offences that might yet earn the fragile McKinnon a maximum of five years in Britain – though even that's unlikely – could have seen him banged up for six decades in an American jail or, more likely, dead at his own hand. Now the US is offended because a British minister has had the temerity to spare him that fate. The suggestion that cruel and inhumane treatment was being readied for an Asperger's sufferer fascinated by the possibility of UFOs is received as an insult.
In the American version, McKinnon's crimes were spectacular. In just over a year, they allege, he hacked into 97 military and Nasa computers. Starting in February 2001, he shut down 2000 machines belonging to the Washington Military District's network. After September 11, 2001, he went to work on the computers at a naval weapons station and disrupted supplies to the US Atlantic Fleet. In one rude message he likened American foreign policy to "government-sponsored terrorism".
This must have been galling. For the Pentagon, it must also have been deeply embarrassing. Some of us suspect, in fact, that McKinnon's real crime was to post a simple statement on a military website: "Your security is crap." Self-evidently, this was true. A superpower engaged in continuous cyber-combat with Islamists, Iran, Russia, China and others besides had been peeled open by a vulnerable Scot who has a thing for flying saucers.
McKinnon did not once try to deny his alleged crimes. He is still perfectly ready, according to his indefatigable mother, to stand trial in the UK, presumably under the 1990 Computer Misuse Act, for offences committed here. For American prosecutors, that isn't good enough. Nor are they satisfied that Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has given cogent reasons for refusing to hand him over. For the US, the Extradition Act 2003 is a licence to receive suspects on demand. That's the kind of relationship they favour.
It does not trouble these representatives of the American state that even David Cameron has spoken up on McKinnon's behalf and lobbied Barack Obama. What's a British prime minister worth? It does not impress them, either, that the phrase "human rights" has been bandied about. Despite Guantanamo and the myriad abuses of the "War on Terror", America listens to no lectures on that score. Nor are its prosecutors willing to admit that the extradition treaty, agreed without debate by Blair's new Labour, is one-sided. America is always in the right, so where's the problem?
Over the last decade or so, roughly twice as many people have been extradited from the UK to the US than have travelled in the opposite direction. British campaigners claim – though this is denied – that American courts demand a higher burden of proof for extradition than their counterparts. Lord Justice Scott Baker, the retired English judge who reviewed the system for the Government, concluded there is no real difference in extradition claims between "probable cause" (the American term) and "reasonable suspicion" (the phrase used here). A parliamentary committee thought otherwise.
The fact remains that most of the human traffic flows west. It is also true that only a tiny handful of the people extradited to Britain have been American citizens. The US boasts it has never refused a request. The reality, where Americans are concerned, is that the claim is very rarely tested. The real point about the McKinnon case is it was wholly exceptional. This time America went beyond the limits of what even supine British governments will swallow.
Perhaps it marks a turning point. The war on terror has wrought huge damage on judicial systems across the Western world. Anything and everything is excused by the need to combat a vast, inchoate conspiracy, even when the results suit actual terrorists perfectly. It might be – though don't hold your breath – that the present UK Government has begun to call a halt. We shall see.
Perceptions of the Extradition Act have laid waste what remains of the special relationship, yet American officials seem oblivious to the fact. Perhaps they understand and simply don't care. In a country less subservient than Britain, that would cause the population to wonder what the relationship was worth to begin with. Perhaps they would then begin to understand that saying "no" to America is not, in fact, unthinkable.
If your skin is brown, of course, you are liable to be less fortunate than Gary McKinnon. No-one blinked when Abu Hamza al-Masri was handed over to the Americans recently, mostly because the cleric's own notions of justice are, let's say, unforgiving. But what of the four men who went at the same time? The US named them as terrorist suspects and that was enough. After the McKinnon case, are we so certain? If they were indeed plotting acts of terrorism, why were they not tried in British courts?
Ask such a question and someone will accuse you of being "anti-American". I'm not sure what the phrase is supposed to mean. I'm certain though that it does not (yet) constitute a crime in these islands.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.