Why did the GCSB intercept emails to and from Solomon Island officials? Nicky Hager and Ryan Gallagher report

New Zealand spies programmed an internet mass surveillance system to intercept messages about senior public servants and a leading anti-corruption campaigner in the Solomon Islands, a top-secret document reveals.

For the first time, New Zealanders can learn about people their government has targeted as part of its role in Five Eyes, a surveillance alliance that includes New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

The secret document, dated from January 2013, shows some of the names and other search terms that the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) entered into the internet spying system XKeyscore (scroll to end of article to read the document). XKeyscore is run by the US National Security Agency and is used to analyse vast amounts of email, internet browsing sessions and online chats that are intercepted from some 150 different locations worldwide.

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GCSB has gained access to XKeyscore through its partnership in Five Eyes, and contributes data to the system that is swept up in bulk from a surveillance base in Waihopai Valley. XKeyscore would have searched through the South Pacific communications intercepted by the GCSB and highlighted those containing the specified Solomon Islands target names and search terms.

When Prime Minister John Key talks of New Zealand's intelligence operations, he voices concern over the threat of terrorism.

In the case of the Solomon Islands, the government and civil society targets appear to be respectable people working in the best interests of their country.

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The top secret document obtained by the Herald on Sunday and US news site The Intercept gives an unprecedented insight into specific targeting by New Zealand's largest and most secretive intelligence agency. No individual foreign targets of the GCSB have ever before reached the public.

The GCSB target list features seven Solomon Islanders by name under the heading "Terms associated with Solomon Islands Government documents".

The names are a who's who of senior public servants in the Solomon Islands government at the time the list was written. They include Barnabas Anga, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade, Robert Iroga, Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister, Dr Philip Tagini, Special Secretary to the Prime Minister, Fiona Indu, senior Foreign Affairs official, James Remobatu, Cabinet Secretary, and Rose Qurusu, a Solomon Islands public servant.

John Key says new claims around intelligence collection are wrong - but he won't say why. He also says the GCSB is acting legally - but won't say how. And he says we are spying - but won't say on who. The Prime Minister has fronted media after a day of controversy caused by the publication of documents taken by whistleblower Edward Snowden while a contractor for the United States' National Security Agency.

Targeting emails associated with these officials would have provided day-by-day monitoring of the internal operation of the Solomon Islands government, including its negotiations with the New Zealand, Australian and other Five Eyes governments.


The target list includes the usernames of the senior public servants' computer accounts. The surveillance was tailored to intercept documents they or other officials sent between each other.

For Philip Tagini, the list has "ptagini" and for James Remobatu "jremobatu" - most likely because their email addresses in the Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet are written ptagini@pmc.gov.sb and jremobatu@pmc.gov.sb. Emails with attached word documents authored by them or with these usernames would have been intercepted at Waihopai, or at another Five Eyes base, tagged as "Solomon Islands Government" intelligence and made accessible through US intelligence databases.

The seventh person caught up in the GCSB's surveillance sweep is the leading anti-corruption campaigner in the Solomons, Benjamin Afuga. For several years he has run an online publication that exposes corruption, often publishing leaked information and documents from whistleblowers within the government. It has a large following.

In January 2013, when he was featured on the GCSB XKeyscore list, Afuga was in the news saying: "I think it is time that Solomon Islanders must rise up and not see corruption as a normal thing. Corruption is bad ... we should rise up and tell our people that enough is enough."

His organisation, Forum Solomon Islands International, has an office next door to Transparency International in the Hyundai Mall in Honiara. The XKeyscore search was programmed so that it would intercept documents sent through email or online chats containing the words "Forum Solomon Islands", "FSII" and "Benjamin Afuga". The rest of the search terms on the Solomon Islands government intelligence list were not individual names.

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After the public servants, its next focus was the country's Cabinet ministers. The search terms included "Cabinet of the Solomon Islands", "Memorandum of the Minister of" and "conclusions of the/ solomon/ cabinet".

The Solomon Islands went through a period of ethnic violence and unstable government in the late 1990s and early 2000s known as "The Tensions". This led to the 2003 deployment to the Solomons of New Zealand, Australian and Pacific Island police and military peacekeepers. Most recently, in 2006, allegations of government corruption sparked riots in the capital, Honiara, with much of Chinatown destroyed.

This means some intelligence collection, relating to the violence and militant groups, is understandable. However, full monitoring of the government, public servants and even the anti-corruption campaigner, especially by 2013, appears disproportionate.

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The main category on the target list where New Zealand officials had clear justification for monitoring, as part of the peacekeeping mission, was militant groups. The list includes "former tension militants", "malaita eagle force" and "malaita ma'asina forum".

However, by January 2013, the date of the target list, both New Zealand and Australia were focused on withdrawing their forces from the island country and by the end of that year they were gone.

The GCSB search list also targeted the nation's "Truth and Reconciliation Commission", "TRC" and "trc report", a process set up in the aftermath of the ethnic violence.

It was modelled on South Africa's post-apartheid process and launched by Bishop Desmond Tutu during a 2009 visit.

The target document was prepared by a named GCSB officer who lives in Wellington.

The list of intelligence search terms were contained in a so-called "fingerprint", a combination of key words used to extract particular information from data about billions of internet communications and browsing sessions accessible through XKeyscore.

The existence of XKeyscore was first revealed by the Guardian in 2013, based on documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The documents showed that the NSA views the system as its "widest reaching" surveillance tool because it is capable of seeing "nearly everything a typical user does on the internet".

• Nicky Hager is a New Zealand-based investigative journalist and an internationally recognised expert on surveillance since the publication of his ground-breaking book Secret Power in 1996. Ryan Gallagher (@rj_gallagher) is an award-winning Scottish journalist whose work at The Intercept is focused on government surveillance, technology and civil liberties.