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The sentencing of David McBride is a brutal punishment

May 16, 2024 at 4:00 pm

Australian soldiers on July 1, 2008 in Salavat, Panjawi Province, Afghanistan [Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images]

David McBride, the man who revealed that Australia’s Special Forces in Afghanistan had committed atrocities and faced a compromised chain of command, was sentenced on 14 May to a prison term of five years and eight months. Sometimes, it’s best not to leave the issue of justice to the judges. They do what they must: consult the statutes, test the rivers of power, and hope that their ruling will not be subject to appeal.

Without McBride’s revelations, there would have been no Afghan Files published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The Brereton Inquiry, established to investigate alleged war crimes, would most likely have never been launched. That notable document subsequently identified 39 instances of alleged unlawful killings of Afghan civilians by members of the Special Forces.

In an affidavit, McBride explained how he wanted Australians to realise that, “Afghan civilians were being murdered and that Australian military leaders were at the very least turning the other way and at worst tacitly approving this behaviour.” Furthermore, “Soldiers were being improperly prosecuted as a smokescreen to cover [the leadership’s] inaction and failure to hold reprehensible conduct to account.”

For taking and disclosing 235 documents from defence offices located mainly in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), the former military lawyer was charged with five national security offences. He also discovered that Australia’s whistleblowing laws are feeble and fundamentally useless. The Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 (Cth) provided no immunity from prosecution, a fact aided by grave warnings from the Australian government that vital evidence would be excluded from court deliberations on national security grounds.

Throughout the process, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus could have intervened under Section 71 of the Judiciary Act 1903 (Cth), vesting the top legal officer in the country with powers to drop prosecutions against individuals charged with “an indictable offence against the laws of the Commonwealth”. Dreyfus refused, arguing that such powers were only exercised in “very unusual and exceptional circumstances.”

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At trial, chief counsel Trish McDonald SC, representing the government, made the astonishing claim that McBride had an absolute duty to obey orders flowing from the oath sworn to the sovereign.

No public interest test could modify such a duty, a claim that would have surprised anyone familiar with the Nuremberg War Crimes trials held in the aftermath of the Second World War.

“A soldier does not serve the sovereign by promising to do whatever the soldier thinks is in the public interest, even if contrary to the laws made by parliament.” To justify such a specious argument, authorities from the 19th century were consulted: “There is nothing so dangerous to the civil establishment of the state as an undisciplined or reactionary army.”

ACT Justice David Mossop tended to agree, declaring that, “There is no aspect of duty that allows the accused to act in the public interest contrary to a lawful order.” A valiant effort was subsequently made by McBride’s counsel, Steven Odgers SC, to test the matter in the ACT Court of Appeal. Chief Justice Lucy McCallum heard the following submission from Odgers: “His only real argument is that what he did was the right thing. There was an order: don’t disclose this stuff, but he bled, and did the right thing, to use his language, and the question is, does the fact that he’s in breach of orders mean that he’s in breach of his duty, so that he’s got no defence?” The answer from the Chief Justice was curt: Mossop’s ruling was “not obviously wrong.”

With few options, a guilty plea was entered to three charges. Left at the mercy of Justice Mossop, the punitive sentence shocked many of McBride’s supporters. The judge thought McBride of “good character” but possessed by a mania “with the correctness of his own opinions.” He suffered from a “misguided self-belief” and “was unable to operate within the legal framework that his duty required him to do.”

The judge was cognisant of the Commonwealth’s concerns that disclosing such documents would damage Australia’s standing with “foreign partners”, making them less inclined to share information. He also rebuked McBride for copying the documents and storing them insecurely, leaving them vulnerable to access from foreign powers. For all that, none of the identifiable risks had eventuated, and the Australian Defence Force had “taken no steps” to investigate the matter.

This brutal flaying of David McBride largely centres on clouding his personal reasons.

In a long tradition of mistreating whistle-blowers, questions are asked as to why he decided to reveal the documents to the press. Motivation has been muddled with effect and affect. The better question, asked Peter Greste, executive director of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, is not examining the reasons for exposing such material, but the revelations they disclose. That, he argues, is where the public interest lies. Unfortunately, in Australia, tests of public interest all too often morph into a weapon fashioned to fanatically defend government secrecy.

All that is left now is for McBride’s defence team to appeal on the crucial subject of duty, something so curiously rigid in Australian legal doctrine. “We think it’s an issue of national importance, indeed international importance, that a western nation has such as a narrow definition of duty,” argued his defence lawyer, Mark Davis.

John Kiriakou, formerly of the Central Intelligence Agency, was the only figure to be convicted, not for torture inflicted by his colleagues during the clownishly named War on Terror, but for exposing its practice. McBride is the only one to be convicted in the context of alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan, not for their commission, but for furnishing documentation exposing them, including the connivance of a sullied leadership. The world of whistleblowing abounds with its sick ironies.

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