Former military lawyer David McBride pleaded guilty to three charges of stealing and unlawfully sharing secret military information, which was then passed on to journalists at ABC News.
McBride told the media outside the courtroom: “I’ll say one thing, and that is, I stand tall, and I believe I did my duty ... and I see this as the beginning of a better Australia.”
His admission of guilt comes after the Australian Capital Territory’s Supreme Court decided to uphold a Commonwealth intervention to withhold crucial evidence due to its potential to jeopardise “the security and defence of Australia” if disclosed.
ABC News used the information provided by McBride in 2017 as the basis for its investigative series The Afghan Files, which provided an unprecedented insight into alleged war crimes committed by Australia’s elite special forces in Afghanistan.
Conducted over four years, the landmark Brereton inquiry subsequently uncovered credible information about 23 incidents of potential war crimes, including the killing of 39 Afghans and the cruel treatment of two others between 2005 and 2016.
Just days before his trial was due to start, the ex-military lawyer entered a guilty plea after Justice David Mossop rejected his attempt to argue to a jury that while he disobeyed orders, he had a duty to act in the public interest. The judge also rejected a request from McBride’s legal team for access to confidential information held by the Commonwealth.
“That was a fatal blow to us,” McBride’s lawyer Mark Davis said. He added that Mr McBride had no option but to enter a guilty plea.
“That limits what we can say to the jury on his behalf, in terms of his duty as an officer and the oath he took to serve the interests of the Australian public,” Mr Davis said.
Former Australian senator Rex Patrick, who founded the Whistleblower Justice Fund, called it a “dark day for democracy in Australia”.
“The attorney-general could have stopped this but refused to, and now we have a whistleblower facing years in jail,” he said.
This week, attorney-general Mark Dreyfus told parliament that his intervention in cases was reserved for exceptional circumstances and said that intervening in McBride’s case might risk politicising the proceedings.
McBride is expected to be sentenced early next year.
“I’m not giving up hope. He’s done the right thing. I’ve said that from the beginning,” his wife Sarah McBride said outside the court. “Truth and justice will prevail and I’m incredibly proud of him, as are his two girls. Please don’t give up on him now.”
Greens senator and spokesperson David Shoebridge said it was “a brutal outcome for David McBride and for every potential whistleblower in the country”.
“Whistleblowers who bring information to light must not be subjected to a public show of prosecution under the guise of national security, or be censored because their story may cause embarrassment or cost to those in power. This case proves yet again that whistleblowers are not adequately protected in Australia,” the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties said in a statement.