Undercover: Spies hired to infiltrate anti-coal campaign
Tangled web: Suspected spy Marnie Tisot. Photo: Supplied
Former soldiers and intelligence operatives have been sent to
infiltrate a network of anti-coal protesters aiming to thwart a
multibillion dollar expansion of coal production in northern NSW.
Using false identities, the spies-for-hire have attempted to
penetrate the inner sanctum of a group of environmentalists and local
landowners who have vigorously attempted to stop the coalmines at Maules
Creek and Boggabri.
In what represents a significant escalation of a heated
battle between Whitehaven Coal and Idemitsu Australia Resources and
anti-coal activists, a Fairfax Media investigation has uncovered a
clandestine campaign of significant scale but ham-fisted execution.
Verifact owner Dan Crowley. Photo: Supplied
Several undercover agents were discovered by the activists,
including one alleged spy Marnie Tisot, who was confronted on camera.
The operation raises questions of its legality given the outright
deception to disrupt protest movements.
Fairfax has interviewed individuals directly involved in the
espionage and multiple sources with detailed inside knowledge of the
surveillance have independently alleged it was orchestrated by a company
run by a former Australian military intelligence officer, Tony Groves,
and his partner, Maria Topia.
While their firm, the Centre for Intelligence and Risk
Management, had direct operational responsibility for the espionage, it
is only one link in a chain of companies believed to be involved.
Centre for Intelligence and Risk Management's Maria Topia. Photo: Facebook
Who the ultimate client was remains a mystery. Spies in the
field were not told, although it was clear the Centre for Intelligence
and Risk Management was acting for another party or parties.
Several leading corporations and prominent Australians are
also involved in the coal expansion in northern NSW and the security
operations that protect them.
Whitehaven Coal is chaired by former deputy prime minister
Mark Vaile and was owned by Nathan Tinkler until he sold his shares last
In a statement, Whitehaven denied it was involved in or aware of the private spying.
But, asked if the security firm that protects the Maules
Creek site, Verifact, had any knowledge of the operation, it said only:
“Verifact are contracted to monitor access onto site to ensure
compliance with our workplace health and safety obligations."
Verifact is owned by former World Cup winning Wallaby rugby
union star and undercover Queensland policeman Dan Crowley, whose
biography was entitled Undercover Prop.
Mr Crowley and Verifact did not respond to emailed questions.
Idemitsu Australia Resources owns and operates the Boggabri
mine. The company spends $40,000 a week securing the facility, chief
operating officer Rod Bridges told the Northern Daily Leader in
In a statement released to Fairfax, Mr Bridges did not
directly answer questions over whether it or a related entity was
involved or aware of the spying activity, or whether it or related
entities had engaged CIRM.
Rather than confirm or deny any involvement, he provided an explanation about why high level security was required.
“Boggabri Coal has been forced to contract site security
because of repeated incidences of unlawful entry by activists over a
period of three years,” he said. “The company [is] responsible for the
safety of all people entering the site. This responsibility extends to
activists who illegally enter the site and put themselves in dangerous
situations.’’ The surveillance operation, say insiders, has been in
place for at least five months.
“The IOs [intelligence operatives] task was to get
information on [protest] actions, report on actions, gather information
on the leadership,” said one source.
“Some were tasked to infiltrate. Others just do observation.”
Fairfax Media was unable to contact CIRM or Ms Topia and Mr
Groves. Emails, phone calls and text messages went unanswered. Ms
Topia is from New Zealand, is believed to have an intelligence
background and is the owner of CIRM. Mr Groves is a former member of the
Australian Defence Force who has worked as a private security guard in
Afghanistan and Iraq. The two are believed to be in a relationship.
Ms Topia and Mr Groves turned up at Maules Creek under
assumed identities, said protest leader Ben Solity. Mr Groves said he
was a former member of a bikie club who had previous weapons charges on
the books and made several visits.
“Tony brought a partner named Maria to the camp once with a
couple of other friends. That Maria is the same person that is pictured
in Maria Topia’s facebook profile,” said Mr Solity.
The protesters were already deeply worried about infiltration
when they confronted Marnie Tisot in May. Ms Tisot had visited the camp
on four occasions under the alias Loulou Mayfield, even acting as a
spokeswoman at one point.
Her suspicious behaviour, and the inadvertent revealing of
her real name in an email she sent, led to the discovery that she worked
for Professional Service Solutions (PSS), a Brisbane intelligence and
security firm that has worked for the United Nations.
Confronted on camera, she denied she was working undercover,
breaking down in tears and saying she had assumed her false identity to
escape the attention of a violent ex-husband. She also said she had
stopped working for PSS.
However, Ms Tisot continued to use her real name once she
left Maules Creek and returned quickly back to work at PSS after being
Her emotional story about fleeing a violent man was also
undermined by the prominent profile and photograph on the PSS website
and the fact there were business cards in her name with her mobile
number at the office of PSS last week. In a brief interview with Fairfax
Media, Ms Tisot declined to outline what she was doing at Maules Creek
but referred Fairfax to her explanation on video.
However, multiple sources familiar with the operation have
confirmed to Fairfax that Ms Tisot was working as an intelligence
operative for CIRM.
The chief executive of PSS, Craig Coleman, said PSS had never
been involved in the operation and Ms Tisot’s activities were done “in
a personal capacity”.
“This has nothing to do with PSS,” he said. “I have
confidentiality agreements with my staff and I’m sure whatever ops they
had down at Maules Creek also had confidentiality agreements as well.”
Barbara McDonald, a law professor at Sydney University and
privacy expert, said any spying arranged by a private company that
involved false identities and deception was legally questionable.
It could fall foul of provisions in the corporations,
consumer and privacy laws, particularly if “someone had acted on the
deception to the material detriment” of those being spied on, she said.
However, anti-coal protesters have also been found to have
broken the law, with mass arrests and the guilty plea for disseminating
false information last week by Jonathan Moylan, who sent out a fake ANZ
Bank press release claiming the bank was withdrawing a $1.2 billion loan
facility for the Maules Creek mine.
Mr Solity said the campaign at Maules Creek was to “raise
awareness about the destruction of the Leard State Forest for a mine
which will inevitably contribute to a large amount of carbon emissions
that will exacerbate climate change’’.