Australia capital supreme court sentences war crimes whistleblower David McBride for theft and leaking military information News
Riley Boughton, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Australia capital supreme court sentences war crimes whistleblower David McBride for theft and leaking military information

The Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory on Tuesday sentenced war crimes whistleblower David McBride to five years and eight months’ imprisonment for theft and sharing classified military documents with journalists after McBride exposed allegations of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan. Justice David Moss ordered McBride to serve 27 months in prison before he is eligible for parole.

McBride, who held the rank of Major and maintained a high-level security clearance, was found guilty of stealing 235 documents from Australian Defence Force (ADF) facilities, 207 of which were classified as SECRET. The police discovered the documents during a February 2018 search of McBride’s property. McBride first pled guilty to three offences on November 17, 2023, including theft of documents from ADF facilities (Count 1) and two counts of unlawfully communicating naval, military or Air Force information (Counts 2 and 3).

In his judgment, Justice Moss emphasised that McBride’s conduct was a “gross breach of trust reposed in him as a senior legal advisor in a sensitive position within the ADF” for which he has shown “no contrition.” McBride’s lawyers asked for leniency, stating that “McBride’s motivation in engaging in the offending conduct was honourable” and that McBride “believed that he would ultimately be vindicated and a court would conclude that he acted in the public interest.”

Justice Moss dismissed the public interest argument,

The public disclosure of information obtained confidentially from allies and partners may damage Australia’s relationship with those allies and partners. Such disclosure may reduce their willingness to share information with Australia and Australia may not be informed of that change in attitude. If that occurred, it would disadvantage ADF operations and, more broadly, would be to the detriment of Australia’s international relations and national security interests.

The case has intensified the debate over the role of whistleblowers in exposing wrongdoing and the challenge of balancing national security with the demand for public transparency. Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre highlighted that McBride is “the first whistleblower to be imprisoned in recent memory in Australia.” Australian Greens Senator David Shoebridge criticised the Albanese Labor government, stating that McBride’s imprisonment “would be an indelible stain” on the government. Shoebridge further asserted that “the real crime here is the law under which the government is continuing these prosecutions.”

Following his sentencing, McBride made a final statement, contending that “the High Court will eventually have to say that we can’t put people in jail for doing their job.” He questioned the nature of his role, asking, “What would my job be if not to pick up on potential illegal activity within the organisation that I was meant to police? I did my job.”