The Pentagon’s Missionary Spies

Matthew Cole, The Pentagon’s Missionary Spies. The Intercept, 26 October 2015. “U. S. Military Used Christian NGO as Front for North Korea Espionage…. The revelation that the Pentagon used an NGO and unwitting humanitarian volunteers for intelligence gathering is the result of a months long investigation by The Intercept. In the course of the investigation, more than a dozen current and former military and intelligence officials, humanitarian aid workers, missionaries, U.S. officials, and former HISG [Humanitarian International Services Group] staffers were interviewed. The U.S. government officials who were familiar with the Pentagon operation and HISG’s role asked for anonymity because discussing classified military and intelligence matters would put them at risk of prosecution. The Pentagon had no comment on HISG or the espionage operations in North Korea.”

Before it was finally dismantled in 2013, [Kay] Hiramine’s organization [HISG] received millions in funding from the Pentagon through a complex web of organizations designed to mask the origin of the cash, according to one of the former military officials familiar with the program, as well as documentation reviewed for this article.

The use of HISG for espionage was “beyond the pale” of what the U.S. government should be allowed to do, said Sam Worthington, president of InterAction, an association of nearly 200 American NGOs. The practice of using humanitarian workers as spies “violates international principles” and puts legitimate aid and development workers at risk, he argued.

“It is unacceptable that the Pentagon or any other U.S. agency use nonprofits for intelligence gathering,” Worthington said. “It is a violation of the basic trust between the U.S. government and its civic sector.”…

The espionage effort was one of the most secretive programs at the Pentagon, called an unacknowledged and waived “special access program,” or SAP. The designation meant that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was required only to brief the chair and ranking members of both appropriations and armed services committees, who were not allowed to take notes or bring in staffers….

On at least one occasion in the period between 2004 and 2006, Hiramine, through HISG, helped coordinate a humanitarian shipment to North Korea.

The charity’s offer of donated clothing was the kind of faith-based donation the North Korean government would occasionally accept to help its population endure the country’s harsh winters. Unbeknownst to the North Korean government, however, underneath the clothing was a hidden compartment containing scores of bibles.

Shipping bibles into North Korea was risky — North Korea severely restricts any religious activities that deviate from communist ideology. But that was the point — if Hiramine’s bibles could make it, the Pentagon would know that it could use the same smuggling method to get military sensors and equipment into the country.

“We sent the bibles in as a test run,” a former senior Pentagon official told me. “They got through without the North Koreans discovering them.”

The Pentagon tasked Hiramine with gathering the intelligence it needed inside North Korea, and Hiramine would in turn utilize HISG’s access to the country to complete the assignments, according to two former military officials with knowledge of the effort. Hiramine, in his role as CEO of HISG, tapped Christian missionaries, aid workers, and Chinese smugglers to move equipment into and around North Korea — none of whom had any idea that they were part of a secret Pentagon operation….

Aside from Hiramine and possibly other top executives, those who worked for HISG were never aware they were involved in a Pentagon intelligence program, or that Hiramine was working for the U.S. government, according to two former military officials….

In all, HISG operated in more than 30 countries, significantly funded by the Pentagon.

According to former employees, public records, and HISG’s former website, the nonprofit conducted disaster relief; provided food, medical supplies, and clothing; and helped start small businesses in countries including Niger, Mali, Ethiopia, Kenya, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, and China….

But behind all the global charity work was an ulterior motive for military officials: The longer HISG operated and became more legitimate, the more opportunities would be available to U.S. military and intelligence officials to run operations in other countries as they had in North Korea. In other words, Hiramine’s ability to use HISG to form partnerships and working relationships with other unsuspecting aid workers and missionaries would give the Pentagon more places to spy, according to one of the former military officials. That official would not say whether Hiramine was tasked with operating in countries besides North Korea….

Using humanitarian and aid workers for gathering intelligence has always been risky. U.S. intelligence policy prohibits using American clergy, journalists, or Peace Corps volunteers as a cover to conduct espionage. Using NGOs is not strictly prohibited, but though it is not unprecedented, it is dangerous.

In recent years, the risk of using legitimate aid workers as cover for spying has had deadly repercussions.

In 2011, the CIA directed a Pakistani doctor to collect DNA samples of the suspected family members of Osama bin Laden under the guise of a hepatitis vaccination program in Abbottabad, Pakistan. After the raid, the Pakistani doctor was arrested and imprisoned by Pakistani authorities, and the Taliban later killed several medical professionals who were trying to conduct polio eradication campaigns, along with their guards.

The Taliban claimed the vaccination program was part of a Western intelligence plot. Cases of polio, which has been eradicated in almost every country in the world, have spiked in Pakistan in recent years. In 2014, a White House adviser informed U.S. public health school deans that the CIA is no longer allowed to use vaccination programs as an intelligence cover.

“The reward is almost zero given the risk because using NGOs — especially unwitting [ones] — produces very weak intelligence,” said Robert Baer, the retired CIA officer. “This is pure Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana stuff,” he continued, referring to the farcical tale of a vacuum cleaner salesman who was recruited to spy on Cuba’s missile program.

Despite starting during the Bush presidency, the North Korea espionage program continued through Obama’s first term. It’s unclear if the president was briefed. The White House declined to comment.

In 2012, now-retired Adm. William McRaven, the commander of the Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, who oversaw the Osama bin Laden raid, shut down the North Korea spying program….

In January 2013, Hiramine and his fellow HISG executives announced to their employees that they were shuttering the organization. “We got no warning,” said [Tom] Jennings, [a] former HISG program director. “We had no jobs, no severance, and no explanation. All they said was ‘we lost our funding.’”