It was the notorious claim that an SAS soldier had chopped off the hands of dead Taliban insurgents that led to allegations of “war crimes” in Australia’s name.
But the whistleblower who leaked the internal report and sparked last week’s police raids on the ABC insists he was trying to expose the willingness of politicians and Defence to throw the soldier under the bus to appease voters – not criticise the troops.
It’s one of the prime examples of what he describes as Australia fighting an “Instagram war”, airbrushed for voters at home.
David McBride, a former military lawyer who now faces years in jail if he is convicted of leaking the top secret documents, has pleaded not guilty on the grounds he was compelled to tell the truth of what was going on.
But that “truth” is not quite the campaign some have suggested, that Mr McBride has risked all to expose “war crimes”.
In fact, he insists the alleged severed hands incident was never a “war crime”. His real beef is with the willingness of top brass to suggest it was a “mutilation” when it was, in fact, legal.
“When you are a low-level soldier risking your life in a very dangerous situation, the opinion of ‘the media’ is not one of the 10 things you need to juggle in your mind,” Mr McBride told The New Daily.
“Unless of course the appearance of things has become more important than reality.”
When Australian soldiers killed four suspected insurgents in 2013, they knew they were required to collect fingerprints and eye scans of every Taliban fighter killed.
In the middle of a complex and intense battle, an SAS corporal took decisive action. He took out a surgical scalpel and severed the right hands of two men, for fingerprinting.
Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, who is now the chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence Matters, was the patrol commander. According to the internal report, he arrived on scene and was also surprised to spot the severed hands.
“At this point in time patrol commander [a sergeant] … arrived at EKIA 3, and seeing the two hands on the ground, exclaimed words to the effect: ‘What the f— are you doing?’,” the report states.
“This is a tactical necessity. This is a procedure to conduct latent fingerprints in the laboratory to take explosive residues,” another SAS soldier replied.
According to the ABC, the SAS corporal told the inquiry he was under pressure to retrieve the biometric material and to get back to the helicopters for “extraction”.
The report states that Captain Hastie, the then-commander of Troop B, observed a severed hand and wanted to know what was going on.
The documents reveal Captain Hastie moved quickly when he returned to base to establish whether the practice was permitted by law. He told the soldiers not to sever any more hands until it had been reported up the chain of command.
But for the soldier involved, the ordeal was just beginning. Labor’s then-defence minister, Stephen Smith, was “shocked” and “puzzled” by the incident. A lengthy investigation followed before the soldier was “cleared” just last year.
“After years as a pariah awaiting trial he has finally been told there is no case against him,” Mr McBride said.
“As I told them at the time, it was not actually a crime, despite the minister’s and others’ hysteria.
“Defence needs to be asked ‘was it a crime?’ If not, why didn’t you correct Stephen Smith at the time? They can’t have it both ways. By all means charge him. But don’t knowingly punish him illegally for embarrassing the Minister.”
As Mr McBride’s documents reveal, the Australian Defence Force Investigative Service experts had in fact specifically discussed the option of chopping off dead Taliban’s hands for identification with the soldiers in the week before the incident.
As the ABC reported in The Afghan Files, the commanding officer of the SAS complained the investigation “was being driven by political considerations”.
“To be clear, I believe the ADFIS team were deliberately seeking to charge members of my team to prevent any adverse action on members of their own. This is a perception shared by persons outside my chain of command as well,” the SAS officer wrote.
But views were clearly divided. Another SAS member told the inquiry, according to leaked documents: “There’s no uncertainty. I wouldn’t cut f***ing people’s hands off, sir.”