Tony Fullman is a middle-aged former tax man and a pro-democracy activist. But four years ago, a botched operation launched by New Zealand spies meant he suddenly found himself deemed a potential terrorist — his passport was revoked, his home was raided, and he was placed on a top-secret National Security Agency surveillance list.
The extraordinary covert operation, revealed Sunday by Television New Zealand in collaboration with The Intercept, was launched in 2012 after New Zealand authorities believed they had identified a group planning to violently overthrow Fiji’s military regime.
As part of the spy mission, the NSA used its powerful global surveillance apparatus to intercept the emails and Facebook chats of people associated with a Fijian “thumbs up for democracy” campaign. The agency then passed the messages to its New Zealand counterpart, Government Communications Security Bureau, or GCSB.
One of the main targets was Fullman, a New Zealand citizen, whose communications were monitored by the NSA after New Zealand authorities, citing secret evidence, accused him of planning an “an act of terrorism” overseas.
But it turned out that the claims were baseless — Fullman, then 47, was not involved in any violent plot. He was a long-time public servant and peaceful pro-democracy activist who, like the New Zealand and Australian governments at that time, was opposed to Fiji’s authoritarian military ruler Frank Bainimarama.
Details about the surveillance are contained in documents obtained by The Intercept from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. More than 190 pages of top-secret NSA logs of intercepted communications dated between May and August 2012 show that the agency used the controversial internet surveillance system PRISM to eavesdrop on Fullman and other Fiji pro-democracy advocates’ Gmail and Facebook messages. Fullman is the first person in the world to be publicly identified as a confirmed PRISM target.
At the time of the spying, New Zealand’s surveillance agency was not permitted to monitor New Zealand citizens. Despite this, it worked with the NSA to eavesdrop on Fullman’s communications, which suggests he is one of 88 unnamed New Zealanders who were spied on between 2003 and 2012 in operations that may have been illegal, as revealed in an explosive 2013 New Zealand government report.
In response to questions for this story, the NSA declined to address the Fullman case directly. A spokesperson for the agency, Michael Halbig, said in a statement to The Intercept that it “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.”
Antony Byers, a spokesperson for New Zealand’s intelligence agencies, said he would not comment “on matters that may or may not be operational.” The country’s spy agencies “operate within the law,” Byers said, adding: “We do not ask partners to do things that would circumvent the law, and New Zealand gets significant value from our international relationships.”
Fullman was born in Fiji in 1965 and emigrated to New Zealand when he was about 21. He became naturalized as a New Zealand citizen and spent most of his working life in the country, including more than 20 years in various roles at the government’s tax department, where he was based out of offices first in Auckland and later in the capital city of Wellington.
In his spare time, Fullman worked as an amateur boxing judge and referee and helped out once a month at a Wellington soup kitchen run by a Christian charity. Between 2001 and 2003, he attended graduate school, earning two masters degrees: one in public management, the other in information systems. And in 2009, he decided to return to Fiji after he was offered a job as chief executive of the Fiji Water Authority.
The move back to Fiji, however, led to a dramatic and unexpected twist in the course of his life — partly due to an old childhood friend.
“Weekends we would go fishing or go up to his mother’s farm, help out on the farm,” Fullman recalled in an interview with The Intercept. “We spent a lot of time together. He was like a brother to me.”
When Fullman left Fiji for New Zealand in his early 20s, he kept in contact with Mara through phone and email. And by the time Fullman returned to Fiji in 2009 to take the water authority job, Mara had become a powerful military officer, serving as the Fijian army’s chief of staff.
But the political situation in Fiji was now highly unstable, and Mara was at the center of some of the tensions. The country had experienced three military coups between 1987 and 2006 that were rooted in ethnic and religious divisions. Following the latest coup in 2006, which had brought authoritarian ruler Bainimarama to power, the military government and police were accused of systematically cracking down on freedom of speech and arresting critics and human rights defenders.
Mara was dissatisfied with the leadership and, in May 2011, he became embroiled in a high-profile dispute with the Bainimarama regime. He was accused of plotting to overthrow the government and charged with uttering a seditious comment. He was hauled before a court, where he was threatened with imprisonment for allegedly uttering the words, “This government is fuck all.”
Mara was freed on bail while the case against him remained ongoing. But he was concerned about the prospect of ultimately receiving a lengthy jail term. He decided to take a drastic course of action — and fled Fiji, escaping on a boat to nearby Tonga.
Following Mara’s dramatic getaway, Fullman was questioned by the Fijian military. It had found records of phone calls between him and Mara dated from shortly before Mara had left. Facing potential punishment over allegations that he helped Mara escape, Fullman decided that he too would have to promptly leave Fiji.
By 2012, Fullman had moved to Sydney, Australia, where he was living with his sister and her family. Alongside Mara and other former Fiji residents, he was working with a group called the Fiji Movement for Freedom and Democracy, which was campaigning against the Bainimarama regime.
In early July 2012, Fullman and Mara traveled to New Zealand, where they held meetings with some of the group’s supporters in Auckland. The meetings appear to have attracted the attention of New Zealand’s spies — and culminated in an extraordinary sequence of events: Fullman’s home was raided, his passport revoked, and both he and Mara were put under top-secret NSA surveillance.
At the time, the New Zealand government had been keeping close tabs on the political situation in Fiji, which consists of some 333 small islands located about a three-hour flight north of Auckland. Fiji has historically maintained strong trading and tourism links with New Zealand, but the relationship had soured in the aftermath of the 2006 military coup. The New Zealand government expressed its opposition to the Bainimarama regime’s takeover, placing sanctions on Fiji and calling for the restoration of democracy. By mid-2012, however, relations between the countries were beginning to thaw. New Zealand government officials were openly discussing the possibility of ending the sanctions, in part because they may have been concerned that Fiji seemed to be moving closer to forming an allegiance with China and other Asian nations.
At 7am on July 17, 2012, about a week after Fullman had returned to Australia from the trip to New Zealand, a team of more than a dozen Australian security agents and two Australian federal police detectives arrived at his sister’s home in Sydney looking for weapons and other evidence of the suspected plot.
They seized computers, phones and documents from the premises and confiscated Fullman’s passport on behalf of the New Zealand authorities. Teams of New Zealand Security Intelligence Service officers and police simultaneously raided Fullman’s former apartment in the Wellington suburb of Karori and the homes of at least three other Fiji Freedom and Democracy movement supporters in Auckland, seizing their computers and other property.
The same day that the raids took place, New Zealand Minister of Internal Affairs Chris Tremain signed a notice canceling Fullman’s passport. The notice said the minister had canceled the passport based on secret details provided by the Security Intelligence Service: “The majority of [the] 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.”
Fullman was baffled by the allegations, which he denied, and sought legal advice to challenge them. At the same time, unknown to him, he had also entered onto the radar of the world’s most powerful surveillance agency: the NSA.
Between early July and early August 2012, New Zealand spies appear to have requested American assistance to obtain the emails and Facebook communications of Fullman and Mara, including from a “democfiji” email address used by Fullman to organize events for the campaign group, whose slogan was “thumbs up for democracy.”
The NSA’s documents contain a “priority list” that names the two men as “Fiji targets” alongside their Gmail addresses and an account number identifying Fullman’s Facebook page. The documents indicate that the NSA began intercepting messages associated with Mara’s accounts on about the July 9, 2012 and on August 3 started spying on Fullman’s messages. The agency also obtained historic messages from the two men dating back to the beginning of May 2012.
To conduct the electronic eavesdropping, the NSA turned to one of its most controversial surveillance programs: PRISM. The agency uses PRISM to secretly obtain communications that are processed by major technology companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Yahoo, as the Washington Post and The Guardian first reported in 2013.
Almost all of the more than 190 pages of intercepted Gmail and Facebook messages from Fullman and Mara is headed “US-984XN,” the code for surveillance that is carried out under PRISM. The pages reveal that the legal justifications NSA cited for the surveillance were selected inconsistently. Most of Fullman’s emails and Facebook messages were obtained as “foreign government” targets, while others such as his bank statements and Facebook photographs were collected under the category of “counter-terrorism.”
The classification markings on some of the files — “REL TO USA/NZ” — make clear that the intercepted communications were to be released to New Zealand spies. In one of the files showing Fullman’s intercepted emails and Facebook chats, the NSA explicitly noted that the intercepted material had been forwarded to its New Zealand intelligence counterpart, the GCSB. (New Zealand is a member of the Five Eyes, a surveillance alliance that also includes electronic eavesdropping agencies from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.)
The NSA surveillance, however, produced no evidence of a plot. The intercepted messages contained personal information and typical Facebook chit chat. The NSA collected Fullman’s bank statements, which were attached to his emails and showed his visits to a coffee shop, a pharmacy, and purchases at a shoe store. There was correspondence about Fullman working to establish a tourism venture on an island in Tonga, emails about a birthday party, many communications about the Fijian pro-democracy group’s blog posts, and details about alleged abuses committed by Fijian military officials. There were discussions about an unwell mother and a young relative with a confidential health problem. A top-secret intelligence document even reproduced a photograph of Fullman’s silver Mitsubishi station wagon alongside details of its precise location. But there was not a single hint of any plans for violence or other clandestine activity.
It would soon become clear that there was no evidence to support the New Zealand authorities’ suspicions. And gradually, their case would fall apart.
On 16 April, 2013, the internal affairs minister, Tremain, wrote again to Fullman. Contrary to the earlier notice he had issued, Tremain now said that “based on advice” provided by the Security Intelligence Service, 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 change of position followed Fullman initiating legal action against the New Zealand government in the Wellington High Court two months earlier.
The NSA intercepted Fullman’s discussions about an unwell mother and a young relative with a confidential health problem.
Another of the pro-democracy members whose home was raided during the operation was former Fiji sports minister and then-grocery store owner Rajesh Singh. After his home was searched by police and security agents, Singh complained to New Zealand’s inspector general of intelligence and security, Andrew McGechan, who questioned the officers involved and reviewed the investigation. His report said the Security Intelligence Service had applied for a domestic intelligence warrant “against a number of individuals” because of “suspicions of a plan to inflict violence.”
But McGechan identified neither unlawful behavior by Singh nor evidence of the supposed terrorist plot. His 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 Intercept asked Fullman if he or Mara had ever heard of — or been involved in — discussions about overthrowing or assassinating Bainimarama. Far from denying it, he said that sort of talk happened frequently within Fijian pro-democracy circles. However, he said it was just angry ranting, when the alcohol was flowing, something completely different from real plans.
“People would say things like, ‘Please can we just hire the Americans to send one drone to Fiji to get rid of those bastards’, or ‘Let me go back to Fiji and I’ll just get a knife and stab him!’” Fullman said. “It’s venting. It’s our way of maintaining sanity — we just sit and bitch about everything. We don’t want violence. We want something where there’s control, a planned approach. More to the effect where it’s the people who protest and say, ‘Enough is enough. This is wrong. We want to go back to the old constitution and have elections.’”
The New Zealand security agency may not have recognized the difference between eavesdropped venting and an actual plot, prematurely launching its raids and broad secret surveillance operation without any clear evidence.
Four days after the raids on Fullman and his fellow campaigners, New Zealand foreign minister Murray McCully traveled to Fiji for trade talks. Fullman believes that the timing was no coincidence — and that the raids targeting the pro-democracy group were used by the New Zealand government as a bargaining chip to curry favor with the Bainimarama regime. “The minister can go to Fiji and say, ‘look we saved you, let’s be friends again, let’s start talking about how we can help each other again’,” Fullman says. “It was part of the frame up.”
No charges were ever brought against any of the Fiji campaigners, yet the ramifications of the case are still felt. Fullman says he gets pulled out of airline queues for security searches every time he travels, and he has had trouble finding work since news reports following the raids in 2012 linked him to a Fiji assassination plan. He told The Intercept that he was never notified that his private communications had been monitored by New Zealand with the help of American counterparts at the NSA — possibly illegally — nor did he ever receive an apology or compensation for his treatment.
As he recalls the saga, there is no anger in Fullman’s voice, only disappointment. Since the affair, he has not felt like returning to live in New Zealand and plans to stay in Australia for the foreseeable future. “To be betrayed by your own country, it’s really hard,” he says, letting out a sigh. “It puts a sour taste in your mouth.”
Documents published with this story: