Before joining the Family Research Council (FRC) as its executive vice president, Gen. Jerry Boykin served in the Bush administration, where he most notably was repeatedly rebuked by the president after giving speeches in uniform painting the war on terror as a holy war against Islam. (The Army later reprimanded him again for leaking classified information).
Boykin has since claimed again and again that he was a victim of anti-Christian persecution during his time in the administration. Now, as a full-time Religious Right activist, Boykin frequently claims that President Obama is persecuting Christians at home and abroad.
He has claimed that the president backs terrorists who murder Christians and has even alleged that the president’s support for LGBT equality and reproductive rights at home are putting Christian lives at risk abroad. He has even charged that the Obama administration is pushing for anti-Christian violence here at home, talking about meeting Americans who want to “take up arms” and “fulfill their constitutional duty and take out the president.”
As it turns out, it seems that in his time in the Bush administration, Boykin was the one who was putting Christians at risk. The Intercept reported today that Boykin created a Pentagon program that put Christians in harm’s way by using missionaries, some of them unwitting, as spies.
By turning a Christian NGO into an American spy front, experts warned reporter Matthew Cole, Boykin’s program could endanger all Christian charitable workers who can now be accused by foreign governments of secretly working as American spies, possibly leading to imprisonment or execution.
Cole writes that Boykin’s “brainchild” was an operation to secretly steer around $15 million from the Pentagon to a group known as Humanitarian International Services Group (HISG), which Boykin and others then turned into a spying operation against North Korea.
The revelation that the Pentagon used an NGO and unwitting humanitarian volunteers for intelligence gathering is the result of a monthslong 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 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, Hiramine’s organization 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.”
HISG had experience shipping “medical equipment, clothing, and disaster relief supplies around the world,” and would later use those services to move military equipment.
The Pentagon tasked [HISG founder Kay] 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.
Because American intelligence has so few assets inside North Korea, much of Hiramine’s task was to find transportation routes to move military equipment — and potentially clandestine operatives — in and around the country. The Pentagon would eventually move sensors and small radio beacons through Hiramine’s transportation network, according to another former military official. Much of what Hiramine was doing was what the military refers to as “operational preparation of the environment,” or OPE, a category that encompasses clandestine intelligence gathering and prepositioning equipment inside a country for future conflicts.
The North Korean government frequently accuses its foreign prisoners of spying for the West or trying to overthrow the government. One such prisoner was American missionary Kenneth Bae, whose case become a cause célèbre of the FRC, which used his imprisonment in North Korea to criticize Obama for supposedly failing to defend Christians abroad. As Lee Fang, a contributor to the Intercept report, put it, Boykin condemns Muslims and gays for supposedly “persecuting Christians” while his own actions “endangered Christian charities across the world.”
Programs like the one Boykin reportedly helped create threaten to give governments like North Korea a reason to clampdown on NGOs and aid workers, including missionaries, by claiming that they are working as American spies.
Fears that this would happen led to the dissolution of the program, and HISG not-so-coincidentally shut its doors not long afterwards. A group steering Pentagon dollars to HISG also closed down, donating “its remaining funds as a gift to the federal government.”
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.
“If these people had been caught and tried and executed in downtown Pyongyang you’d really understand the risk,” said Robert Baer, a retired CIA officer who spent more than 20 years conducting espionage operations.
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 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.
McRaven told us he shut it down because he was nervous about the flap if it ever got out that the Pentagon had used a bunch of evangelicals and missionaries as spies,” said one former military officer, adding that if the program had produced better intelligence McRaven would have considered keeping it up and running. McRaven did not respond to a request for comment.
In January 2013, Hiramine and his fellow HISG executives announced to their employees that they were shuttering the organization. “We got no warning,” said Jennings, the former HISG program director. “We had no jobs, no severance, and no explanation. All they said was ‘we lost our funding.’”