By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Frank Owen
For a guy who claims that Saudi Arabia's royal family has a contract on his life, Palm Beach Gardens resident Tim Hunter is remarkably calm. A heavyset, politically conservative baby boomer, he doesn't look or sound nuts. In fact, with his round, steel-rimmed glasses and his face like a big pink owl's, he seems like a high school science teacher while telling his outrageous story in a calm, even voice only occasionally marked by profanity.
Since 1995, when he was thrown out of the U.S. diplomatic corps, Hunter has been blowing the whistle on Saudi religious repression. And, he charges, the U.S. State Department has helped the Saudis deny religious freedom to American citizens overseas.
"The mission in Jeddah didn't want to have anything to do with Christianity or Judaism," he tells New Times. "It was considered an annoyance in the relationship with the Saudis." In some cases, he claims, embassy officials informed on non-Muslim congregants who offended the Saudis by practicing their religions: "They'd turn around and tell the fucking Saudi religious police."
No one has ever mistaken the House of Saud for defenders of religious freedom -- or of any other freedoms, for that matter. Through the Cold War and beyond, however, U.S. dependence on Saudi oil and Saudi anti-Communism has shielded the desert sheiks from criticism of their human rights record.
Even post-9/11, when Saudi support for radical Islamic groups linked to terrorism has become well-known, U.S. foreign policy remains schizophrenic. Saudi religious repression is detailed in obscure government reports, but official criticism of the desert despots is almost nonexistent.
"Legitimizing the Saudi dynasty is the mission's first priority," Hunter says. "We're their retainers, just running around and taking care of things for them."
That point of view got Hunter in trouble with the diplomats he served with from 1990 to 1995, two of those years in the American consulate in Jeddah. He claims he was dismissed from the service for his whistle-blowing -- locked out of his office, denied his pension, and cut off from medical coverage for a job-related disability.
Since leaving the foreign service, Hunter has lived a spookmaster-in-Wonderland existence. In the late '90s, he worked for an arms manufacturer that, he says, turned out to be an al Qaeda front. With CIA guidance, he was whisked from that job to a Tampa-area safe house, where he was mothballed for a year. And he takes the idea of a royal hit, which he heard about from CIA sources, seriously.
When New Times tried to trace his steps in public records, there wasn't much of a paper trail: no property records, no listed phone number, and only a P.O. box on his drivers license. "You're not paranoid if they're really out to get ya," he says over iced tea in a barbecue restaurant near his North Palm Beach office. He won't say what he does for a living.
Born in Glendale, California, in 1946, Hunter -- whose father was an engineer for the Atomic Energy Commission -- grew up all over the American Southwest. He drifted for a few years after high school, attending college sporadically. "I was a child of the '60s," he says. "I took time off to smell the flowers." He enlisted and served in Army counterintelligence from 1968 to 1971, then finished his education at the University of New Mexico, graduating in 1972 with a degree in geography.
Hunter worked as a professional ideologue from 1972 to 1977, as Midwest director of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a Delaware-based conservative think tank founded by William F. Buckley. He spent the next five years as a geographer/statistician for the Nationwide and Hartford insurance companies, then served in a series of roles in the Reagan White House, including that of director of policy and planning in the Office of Personnel Management, where he says he "checked the political background of appointees."
Following the Bush I transition, Hunter entered the diplomatic corps in 1989. He was posted to the American Embassy in Ottawa, Canada, as director of personnel through 1991, then returned to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, a group he came to loathe. "A little Gestapo," he calls it. "Ostensibly, they do security clearances for anybody who's going to work for State in any way."
In December 1992, Hunter was appointed personnel officer at the embassy in Jeddah. But because he'd raised charges of payroll padding in Ottawa, he'd gained a reputation that preceded him. "People told me they were terrified of my arrival in Saudi," he says. "They said I was viewed as a very destructive person."
Hunter soon found trouble -- or it found him -- in his new post. Early on, he says, Ambassador Mark Hambley told him of the existence of an "underground community" of Catholics -- a mix of U.S. and foreign nationals -- who worshiped regularly but secretively at the embassy compound. "They called it the 'Tuesday evening lectures,'" Hunter says.
Formally, Saudi law did not prohibit religious practice by non-Muslims as long as it was done privately. But in fact, the mutawa -- the Saudi religious police -- frequently took (and still take) the law into their own hands, seeking out and disrupting non-Muslim religious practice among Americans and other nationals living in the desert kingdom.