Special investigation: Inside one of the SIS's biggest anti-terrorism operations

Source: 1News

By Nicky Hager and Ryan Gallagher

One of the Security Intelligence Service's biggest ever anti-terrorism operations – conducted between July and August 2012 – targeted a group of pro-democracy campaigners who it mistakenly thought were planning to overthrow the military government in Fiji.

A New Zealand man had his communications monitored, probably illegally, his home raided and his passport cancelled by the SIS. But there were no guns or bombs. He was not part of a plot.

The man, Tony Fullman, was a long-time public servant and peaceful pro-democracy campaigner who, like the New Zealand and Australian governments at that time, was opposed to the Bainimarama military government.

Documents show that Fullman was monitored by the controversial Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) as part of the operation. The GCSB was not permitted to monitor New Zealanders at that time.

This means Fullman, a New Zealand citizen, is one of the 88 New Zealanders that an explosive 2013 report by Rebecca Kitteridge found may have been illegally spied on by the GCSB between 2003 and 2012.

His is the first of the 88 secret names to be publicly identified.

Other Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement supporters were also raided or spied on by the GCSB during the SIS anti-terrorism operation.

The government has never admitted making a mistake in targeting the group, including with respect to the GCSB spying on Fullman.

A well-placed insider says it was one of the SIS's biggest operations in years. SIS staff were “very excited”, he said, believing they “finally had some baddies, real live terrorists in New Zealand.”

Prime Minister John Key was briefed in advance on the operation and personally signed the warrants.

A New Zealand intelligence spokesperson responded to a list of questions about Fullman and the surveillance saying: “We don’t comment on matters that may or may not be operational. Our security and intelligence agencies operate within the law. The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security provides independent oversight of the agencies and can look into any operational activity.  We do not ask partners to do things that would circumvent the law, and New Zealand gets significant value from our international relationships.”

The SIS operation came to light in documents obtained from the US National Security Agency (NSA) by whistle blower Edward Snowden. TVNZ collaborated with US news site The Intercept  to analyse the documents.

The leaked NSA documents include months of Fullman's intercepted Facebook messages and personal emails, and “democfiji” emails relating to a “Thumbs up for democracy” campaign.

Initially puzzling – there are page after page of personal messages of no apparent intelligence value – these intercepted communications allowed the SIS operation to be uncovered.

The GCSB used one of the NSA's most controversial surveillance systems, PRISM, to target Fullman's communications. Staff in the NSA's Hawaii headquarters – the same facility where Snowden himself worked in 2012 – tapped into the US Internet giants Facebook and Gmail, took what they called “pulls” of Fullman's messages from May-August 2012 and forwarded them to the GCSB.

Each of Fullman's more than 200 intercepted messages is headed “US-984XN”, the internal NSA code for the PRISM system. This makes Fullman the first person in the world to be publicly identified as a confirmed PRISM target.

The NSA uses PRISM secretly to obtain communications stored and transmitted by major technology companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Yahoo. PRISM was also used to obtain months of Fullman's bank statements, attached to emails from his bank. A NSA document headed “Fiji Priority List” contains four Facebook addresses, nine Gmail addresses and one Yahoo address belonging to seven people called “Fiji Targets”. Three of the target people appear to be part of the mistaken Fiji plot; the other four, who include a Sri Lankan member of parliament, may be part of an unrelated SIS operation targeting Sri Lankans.

The first round of NSA monitoring was recorded by the NSA staff in a file titled “9 July.doc”. The emails belonging to three of the people on the target list had been intercepted at three different points in the world-wide surveillance system run by agencies in the Five Eyes, a spying alliance that New Zealand is part of alongside the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

The first person's messages were headed “US-984XR”, the code for collection by the NSA's “Fairview” programme that accesses the US telco AT&T's networks. The second person's messages had been intercepted using “US-3171”, a major NSA cable access site codenamed Dancing Oasis; and the third person's messages – definitely part of the SIS's Fiji operation – via “DS-800”, a “special source” access run by the Canadian Five Eyes agency, the Communications Security Establishment.

The NSA carried out the rest of the interception with PRISM.

Intercepted messages from most of the named Fiji targets – including Fullman – appear to have been sent to GCSB in word files. Looking up the file “properties” gave the names of five NSA officers who created and edited the PRISM results. Their job positions have the code “NSA-FHS”, the internal NSA name for the signals intelligence department at its Hawaii centre.

The classification markings on most of the files – “REL TO USA/NZ” – suggest that the intercepted communications were to be released to New Zealand spies. Moreover, the NSA staff inserted notes in the PRISM results pointing out that particular intercepted files had “previously been sent to GCSB.”

An NSA spokesperson said “NSA works with a number of partners in meeting its foreign-intelligence mission goals, and those operations comply with U.S. law and with the applicable laws under which those partners operate.  A key part of the protections that apply to both U.S. persons and citizens of other countries is the mandate that information be in support of a valid foreign intelligence requirement, and comply with U.S. Attorney General-approved procedures to protect privacy rights.”

The SIS operation was launched at 7am on 17 July 2012 when 16 Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) officers and two Australian Federal Police detectives arrived at the home of Fullman's sister in Sydney, where he was staying, looking for weapons and other evidence of the terrorism plot. They seized his computer and phone, and confiscated his passport on behalf of the New Zealand authorities. They began monitoring his communications at this time as well.

Teams of SIS officers and police simultaneously raided Fullman's former flat in the Wellington suburb of Karori and at least three other Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement supporters in Auckland, seizing their computers and other property.

The New Zealand Minister of Internal Affairs Chris Tremain signed a Notice of Recall and Cancellation for Fullman's passport dated that same day, 17 July. The notice set out the SIS case against Fullman.

It said the minister had cancelled Fullman's passport based on information provided by the NZSIS. “The majority of that information is classified but in summary I have good reason to believe that.... you are involved in planning violent action intended to force a change of Government in a foreign state; and you intend to engage in, or facilitate, an act of terrorism overseas.”

The notice said the danger to the security of New Zealand could not be effectively averted by other means and cancellation of the passport would “prevent or effectively impede” Fullman's ability to carry out the intended actions.

Nine months later the SIS had to back down from the terrorism claims.

On 16 April 2013 the internal affairs minister Tremain wrote again to Fullman and, contrary to the earlier letter, said that, “based on advice provided by the NZSIS”, there were “no longer national security concerns” about Fullman. The cancellation of his passport was lifted “without requiring an application for a replacement, or payment of a fee”.

The turnaround followed Fullman initiating legal action against the New Zealand government in the Wellington High Court two months earlier. It is also worth noting that the SIS allegations against him were dropped in the same week of April 2013 that the explosive report by Rebecca Kitteridge was released finding unlawful spying by the GCSB.

A lot had happened in the eight months since the raids in Wellington, Auckland and Sydney, and the NSA surveillance.

The PRISM monitoring of Fullman appears to have ended on 10 August 2012, the same day by chance that the first hints of GCSB involvement in the Kim Dotcom case emerged in court.

The following month Key admitted illegal GCSB surveillance of Dotcom and by April 2013 the GCSB controversy was one of the most serious crises of Key's political career. The Fiji terrorism operation was quietly shelved.

The SIS now knew the GCSB surveillance of Fullman had probably been illegal. But the agency kept it secret and did not apologise nor give him a chance to seek legal redress.

Fullman says “I worked for Inland Revenue and one of the last things I did for them was to design an intelligence system for catching people outside the tax system, these are the corporate tax payers. And in doing so I worked with a lot of the intelligence units in the police and I also went to SIS, had a chat to their director, working out the best way for gathering intelligence. From what I was told and how they operate, I kinda had higher expectations that they would have done a thorough check before initiating any sort of 'hey, this guy is a terrorist.' They didn't.”

He feels disappointed by the security and intelligence services. “I thought they were much better than that and more professional.” If they are going to be given more powers, “people need to know it is going to be used in the right way,” he said.

The SIS operation appears to have been sparked in early July 2012 when Fullman and his pro-democracy friend Ratu Tevita Mara, son of a long term Fiji prime minister, visited Auckland and had the meetings with Singh and other Fiji Movement for Freedom and Democracy members. Mara had fallen out with the Bainimarama government the previous year and been charged with uttering a seditious comment – he had reportedly said “This government is f*** all”. He escaped by boat from Fiji to nearby Tonga.

The well-placed insider said the operation began after the SIS bugged telephone calls and believed it heard threatening discussion against Bainimarama. Fullman believes this bugging probably occurred while Mara visited Auckland. In the raids two weeks later, the SIS had asked Freedom and Democracy Movement members whether an assassination plot was discussed during Mara and Fullman's meetings.

During the research for this story, TVNZ asked various people in Auckland pro-Fiji democracy groups if they had heard of discussions about overthrowing or killing Bainimarama – during Mara's visit or at any other times. Far from denying it, they replied that that sort of talk happens frequently. However they said it is just angry venting, when the kava is flowing, completely different to real plans.

Eventually, it became clear that the SIS had failed to find a terrorist plot.

The Snowden documents included 195 pages of intercepted messages belonging to Fullman and Mara: daily monitoring of their private communications in early August 2012 using PRISM and “three month pulls” of their messages back to 2 May 2012.

These messages contain some extremely personal information, typical Facebook chit chat and profile information, lots of correspondence about Fullman helping Mara establish a tourism venture on an island in Tonga and many communications about blog posts and other activities of their pro-democracy group.

There are discussions about an unwell mother and a young relative with problems. A top secret intelligence document reproduces Fullman's proud photograph of his Mitsubishi car.   The intercepted bank statements showed Fullman's visits to a coffee shop, a pharmacy, and purchases at a shoe store.

But there is not a single hint of any plans for violence or other clandestine activity. The NSA surveillance produced no evidence of a plot.

Likewise the SIS and Australian ASIO officers took computers, hard drives, phones and papers from at least five homes during the 17 July raids. A subsequent official report by the New Zealand Inspector General of Intelligence and Security strongly suggests they found no sign of a plot there either.

One of those raided, Rajesh Singh, complained to the Inspector General, Andrew McGechan, who questioned the SIS officers involved and studied the SIS files on the operation.

His report said the SIS had applied for a domestic intelligence warrant “against a number of individuals” because of “suspicions of a plan to inflict violence” (against someone whose name was redacted, clearly Bainimarama).

But McGechan found no evidence of unlawful behaviour by Singh or, by implication, evidence of the supposed terrorist plot.

His 2 May 2014 report said “There is nothing in the issue of the Warrant itself or in the questions and answers that followed... which comes even near to approaching proof of criminal activity or participation in terrorism.” He noted that “No police activity has resulted, or charges been laid.”

The Inspector-General found that a SIS agent issued Singh a heavy-handed warning, even though this is explicitly not allowed under the SIS Act.

The SIS officer “said she had messages to convey from the New Zealand Government: it would not tolerate [redacted]” and “Anyone involved in planning would be dealt with by NZ Police.”

McGechan declared that these actions were beyond the SIS's powers and it was clear that “this 'disruption' was planned from the outset.” He said “there is no indication that any doubts were harboured as to its legality.”

The final day of PRISM monitoring of Fullman's communications on 10 August 2012 intercepted an email from the New South Wales government refusing a request from Fullman for legal aid. He had begun a long and expensive process to get his passport returned.

Fullman was born in Fiji in 1965 and emigrated to New Zealand when he was about 21. He spent most of his working life in New Zealand, including 24 years at the Inland Revenue Department in Wellington. In his spare time, he worked as an amateur boxing referee and once a month helped out at a Christian charity in Wellington, serving meals to local poor and disadvantaged people. He earned two masters degrees in management as an adult student and then from 2009-2011 moved to Fiji to be CEO of the Fiji Water Authority (the PRISM-intercepted emails include Fullman's CV).

He was enthusiastic about being a New Zealander. “I really liked it,” he told TVNZ. “New Zealand to me is, I kind of fell in love with it, you know the number 8 wire. Then you have the women's vote, Greenpeace, anti-nuclear, it was fantastic.”

His life changed in 2011. Following Mara's escape from Fiji, Fullman was taken in for questioning by the Fiji military. It had found phone calls between him and Mara, a childhood friend from the northern island of Levuka, shortly before Mara left. Fullman was forced to leave Fiji and Mara asked him to help support the pro-democracy campaign.

Fullman says he helped Mara “organising meetings with the leaders of the Pacific and anyone we could get in the Commonwealth. And it is just selling the idea of the issues in Fiji, in particularly what was happening behind the scenes that people didn't know.” They were on the same side as the New Zealand and Australian governments, which also opposed the Bainimarama government. 'We had meetings with them, regular meetings,” including with the foreign affairs officials working on South Pacific issues.

Since being publicly associated with a claimed terrorist plot (in news stories on the Singh raid), he has had trouble finding work. He says he is still pulled out of airline queues for security searches when he travels. He does not feel like being in New Zealand and is currently based in Sydney where he is seeking work as a business consultant.

“To be betrayed by your own country, it's really hard,” he told TVNZ. “It puts a sour taste in your mouth. When you watch the All Blacks play, it's not done with the same sentiments any more.”


An April 2013 NSA powerpoint describes PRISM as the surveillance system “used most in NSA reporting”. Many people, world wide, use US based Internet companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook and the NSA set up PRISM to give it access to these people's past and present messages.

NSA officers simply need to tick a box indicating that the legal basis for their search is either targeting foreign governments and organisations, foreign terrorist groups or weapons of mass destruction.

The Fullman intercepts indicate that the NSA lets intelligence allies like New Zealand use PRISM. The SIS appears to have worked with the GCSB to exploit the NSA's easy access to the Facebook, Gmail and Yahoo servers.

Most of Fullman's emails and Facebook messages were obtained as “foreign governments and organisations” targets, while others such as his Facebook profile picture were recorded as terrorism targets.

The SIS operation documents are a rare example within the Snowden leaks of actual intercepted communications.

Each intercepted message has special intelligence codes at the top. US-984XN means the messages were intercepted using PRISM. There are also 15 character “Prism Case Notations” that indicate the “PRISM Provider” (eg Facebook), content type (eg chat) and other information.