McBride, a military lawyer for special forces, pushed his report internally at first. At one point, he went to the Australian Federal Police. Eventually, he went to journalists. But the story he wanted told wasn’t the one that ended up appearing in the ABC under the title “The Afghan Files“.
In fact, McBride wanted the opposite of the stories about possible misconduct by soldiers. He was convinced the much bigger story was that Australia’s special forces had been hung out to dry by politicians and Defence brass obsessed with their own careers and popularity, and that this was just one element in a corrupt and degraded system that has left Australia’s national security dangerously exposed.
The man at the heart of the leak that prompted the controversial police raid on the ABC’s headquarters earlier this month is a complicated individual. The headline writers call him a whistleblower but to others he’s a conspiracy theorist. He openly acknowledges issues with mental health, having been medically discharged in 2017 because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and with a history of alcohol misuse. Even his defenders acknowledge elements of his claims are fantastical.
Yet McBride also has an extraordinary life story crammed with colour, adventure and genuine achievements. His ex-wife supports him fully in what he is doing, and McBride’s qualities as a loving father of two adolescent daughters are palpable.
The considerable task that now lies ahead of him as he defends himself against charges of theft of Commonwealth property, breaching the Defence Act and unauthorised disclosure of information is to persuade a court that what he did was actually his duty and therefore not a crime.
He doesn’t deny taking hundreds of pages of classified documents, nor leaking them. So he has to prove that the entire system is wrong, not him. If he fails, he faces many years in jail.
His father’s ‘fall from grace’
The first critical piece of the McBride puzzle is that he is one of four children of William McBride, the Sydney obstetrician who raised the alarm on the drug thalidomide in the 1960s but was later struck off the medical register for falsifying research results in a bid to prove the harmfulness of a different drug.
The younger McBride says as a young man he did not have a “warm and fuzzy relationship” with his stern and hard-working father, though they grew closer later in life.
The elder McBride wanted his son to become a doctor but without the school marks for medicine, he studied law instead. With a degree from Sydney University, McBride – on the recommendation of his father – snared a scholarship to study a second law degree at Oxford.
There he met some British army officers and decided that soldiering was his calling, though he didn’t at first tell his father because he didn’t think he would allow it.
Schoolfriend David Adams, a prominent documentary filmmaker, says the shadow cast by the public disgrace of his father was pivotal for McBride. “For David, the obvious turning point was when he saw his father’s fall from grace. Choosing a life three to five years later at the pointy end of the military – I personally would put that down to the events around his father,” he says.
After a year’s posting to Germany in the dying days of the Cold War, he went to Sandhurst, the officer training academy. He commanded a platoon in Northern Ireland while bomb and sniper attacks on British soldiers were still happening.
After trying out twice unsuccessfully for Britain’s elite Special Air Service – he passed the initial phase in the Welsh mountains but failed the jungle section in Brunei – he quit the army. “It was my burning ambition to join the SAS,” he says. “I was chewed up about it at the time.”
He worked for a British security company protecting diplomats, journalists and businesspeople in Rwanda in the immediate aftermath of the 1994 genocide and in the equally dangerous Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of the Congo – protecting diamond mines.
In one confrontation during this period, he says he bit a man’s finger clean off.
After growing tired of the travel and the action, McBride returned to England, where friends from Oxford got him a job on a reality TV show called Wanted, in which he starred as a “tracker” who chased fleeing contestants all over England.
He rescued – or kidnapped, depending on the perspective – the daughter of an Italian mother and Malaysian father after the man fled to his home country with the young girl following a divorce. He very nearly turned that into a regular business by selling it as a TV show idea to a British production company before the firm’s lawyers decided it was too risky. He says he also discussed with an Australian TV executive the possibility of capturing fugitive Australian businessman Christopher Skase and returning him from Spain.
After returning to Sydney, he briefly joined a major law firm but, finding the work both hard and dull, he returned to television, working as a security adviser on David Adams’ hardcore travel documentary series Journeys to the Ends of the Earth.
He worked as a staffer for the Liberal MP for Wentworth, Peter King, then ran unsuccessfully as the Liberal Party’s candidate for the seat of Coogee, a chance he got thanks to his politically connected sister Louise.
It was around this time that his life changed when he met Sarah Green at a party in Sydney’s northern beaches. She helped convince him to join the Australian army as a lawyer.
She is now Sarah McBride – having kept his surname though they split up in 2016. She remains strikingly loyal to her former husband, figuring he is a smart and decent man and if he is willing to destroy his life over this, it must be something worth fighting for.
“I am incredibly proud of him,” she says. “Obviously there have been moments of absolute frustration … He hasn’t been present a lot of the time because he’s so completely ingrained in getting this across the line. But I’m still standing right next to him. He’s made the big sacrifice of the relationship coming apart.”
‘No one has a vision’
At 55, McBride is physically imposing. He is 188 centimetres tall, weighs 100 kilograms and still goes to the gym daily, which he says is a vital part of his mental health program.
“I’ve aged a lot lately,” he says, during a lengthy interview at the family home in the southern suburbs of Canberra, which his ex-wife has kept while McBride moved to an apartment in another part of town.
During the period when he began talking to journalists in 2016, he posted videos to YouTube as a person named “Ghost Three Zero” and set up a website called “The Ops Room”. He comes across in these videos as unstable, railing against what he says are the opinion poll-tested remarks of Australian military leaders, saying he has given up on Australia and wants to become American.
His demeanour in person is much better. He is self-aware, easygoing, frank and funnily self-deprecating. He went through two rounds of rehab in 2016, once for substance abuse and once for PTSD.
But he also repeats many of his far-fetched ideas. The world view that prompted him to leak the documents isn’t straightforward. The unifying theme is that people in leadership are avoiding the tough decisions because they are worried that any mistake will affect their careers.
“It’s a real sickness we need to work on,” he says. “No one has a vision. Everyone has an opinion poll. No one wants to make a decision.”
Over two deployments to Afghanistan in 2011 and 2013, he became convinced the war was so dictated by political imperatives in Canberra – especially the desire to avoid civilian casualties – that it became impossible for Australian soldiers to do their jobs.
At the centre of his complaint lies a 2013 Defence directive to Australian soldiers stating they needed a high degree of confidence that anyone they fired upon was “directly participating in hostilities”. If not, a soldier could be “exposed to criminal and disciplinary liability, including potentially the war crime of murder”, according to the ABC’s reports on the documents McBride leaked.
McBride argues this change increased the scrutiny of special forces missions. The hazard of possible murder investigations left the Australians hamstrung.
“If you are that worried about Afghan deaths, why not pull us out?” he asks. “If you want us to fight the war, you have to be able to let us do it.”
If you are that worried about Afghan deaths, why not pull us out? If you want us to fight the war, you have to be able to let us do it.
At the extreme end of his theory, McBride argues the government amplified the “rules of engagement” for Australian soldiers, knowing it could increase the risk to their lives, but that politicians were content to do this because attending soldiers’ funerals would look good on television and boost their approval ratings. They did this with the complicity of obedient Defence leaders, he says.
That is universally seen as preposterous and indeed offensive. Even McBride’s sympathisers won’t touch it.
Some people in military circles who defend McBride say his underlying point about political caution hampering the war effort is legitimate. These people, most of whom don’t want to be named, put the more incredible elements of McBride’s world view down to his PTSD.
Former fellow military lawyer Glenn Kolomeitz, who has known McBride for more than a decade and works on PTSD cases, says McBride was always a decent guy and good lawyer who was “emotionally mature and professional”.
“PTSD must be considered in all cases involving veterans,” he says.
Yet the idea that the war strategy was dictated from Canberra to save politicians’ careers overlooks the fact that the strategy was overwhelmingly set by the United States. The most strenuous avoidance of civilian casualties came in 2009 under the leadership of US General Stanley McChrystal, who focused on the counter-insurgency doctrine of winning hearts and minds – much earlier than the 2013 period McBride fixates on.
Among his other bugbears about the ADF is the push to boost female recruitment and the pursuit of male ADF members in the so-called Jedi Council sex scandal.
McBride was passed over for promotion after his first Afghanistan deployment in 2011.
‘What I’ve done makes sense to me’
There is no reason to think McBride is anything but utterly convinced of his own case.
Although he rented a place in Spain in 2018 with a vague idea of doing a Skase himself, it was at best a half-hearted attempt to avoid justice. He was arrested last September after returning briefly to Australia to attend his elder daughter’s school dance, which he decided was more important.
McBride tears up when he talks about taking his younger daughter, who is 12, to the latest Avengers movie last weekend. “I spent half the movie just looking sideways at her,” he says.
The contradiction is that he may well miss many future school dances and weekend movies by going to jail.
Sarah says although McBride is a “fantastic dad”, the girls often pick him up on the fact that even when he’s there, he’s not quite there. “You can be talking to him – and he doesn’t do it intentionally – but he doesn’t hear anything that’s outside of his own thoughts,” she says.
Adams says McBride has always been this way. “He always had the ability to float off a bit,” he says.
He may be listening to what he calls “the ghosts of Anzac past”, who he says have been urging him to carry on, to protect the great legacy of the ADF.
“What I’ve done makes sense to me,” he says. “It’s the kind of battle I’ve always wanted. Even though I would quite like to be able to let it go and get on with my life, I don’t see how I can.”
David Wroe is defence and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.