Speak and Suffer

Tim Hunter blows the whistle on U.S. hypocrisy toward Saudi Arabia

The surreptitious Catholic mass was a practice the embassy had long tolerated, Hunter learned, but gradually cracked down on in response to growing Saudi pressure in the 1980s and '90s. "Hambley called me in and told me, 'You're a Catholic.... Keep an eye on things. Work with the security officer. Vet any people who want to join the group.'"

Vet was a discreet way of saying prevent, Hunter contends. "My job was to never give new applicants to the congregation a straight answer," he says. "Just give them a runaround and endlessly drag it out."

Hunter spent several weeks getting acquainted with the worshipers. "I was spying on them as I got to know them as friends," he says. "I don't mind spying for my country. But the idea of spying on a church -- my church-- that doesn't seem to be a government function."

A spookmaster in Wonderland
Colby Katz
A spookmaster in Wonderland

The last straw came when Hunter walked in on mission security chief Chuck Angullo and found him on the phone, disclosing congregation members' names to Saudi intelligence. "I asked him if he was crazy," Hunter says. "These people could get in trouble. It was like high treason."

Hunter has no direct knowledge of reprisals stemming from the mission's disclosures, but he says the congregation dwindled. "People disappeared," he says. "They never showed up again. I thought it was very ominous. People disappear for all kinds of reasons. But I'm not contributing to it."

A change in security chiefs didn't help. "The new chief, Mark Jackson, wanted me to continue spying," Hunter says. "I never gave him any useful information. I basically said, 'Fuck you.' I wanted the services to continue, but I didn't want the embassy to know anything worth passing to Saudi police."

In January 1994, Hunter complained to a team from the State Department's Office of the Inspector General, which was visiting on a physical security check of the mission. "The team leader laughed it off and told me, 'We don't deal with political questions,'" Hunter says. "I told him, 'You don't deal with the Bill of Rights?'"

Within months, Hunter was reassigned to a D.C. desk job. He continued to speak out on the problems of non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, however, an act he believes led to his dismissal from the State Department in April 1995. He sued repeatedly over the next two years -- for reinstatement, for back pay, to have his pension vested, to have his medical coverage restored -- to no avail.

Since that time, he's held a variety of positions -- beginning as Washington director for State Department Watch, a nonprofit human-rights advocacy group -- writing on Saudi repression for foreign affairs and religious journals and working the radio talk-show circuit, including Michael Reagan's nationally syndicated show. His personal financial situation has continued to deteriorate. "It's grim," he says. "My marriage fell apart -- most whistle blowers' marriages do. I'm living with relatives in Palm Beach Gardens."

The State Department declines to comment on Hunter or his case except to confirm that the South Florida resident was employed from 1990 to 1995. But spokesperson Gregg Sullivan acknowledges that Saudi authorities "haven't always been supportive" of non-Muslim worship on embassy grounds. He could hardly do otherwise, since the department's Office of International Religious Freedom reported as recently as last October that "arbitrary" action by Saudi religious police "force[s] most non-Muslims to worship in such a manner as to avoid discovery by the Government or others."

Sullivan insisted that the U.S. supports religious freedom around the world. But, he said, "At the same time, we want to promote the free flow of oil.... You have to weigh one interest against the other."

Sullivan says that U.S. missions to Saudi Arabia may have hosted surreptitious religious gatherings in the past but no longer do so. This has nothing to do with appeasing the Saudis, he contends. "Frankly, that might constitute a problem of separation of church and state.... U.S. law does not provide for the convoking of religious services on government grounds."

"Bullshit," Hunter says. "Section 107 of the 1998 International Freedom Religious Act specifically authorizes religious use of mission grounds by U.S. citizens." New Times confirmed Hunter's claim by reviewing the law on the State Department's Website.

Hunter says he still has a network of State Department contacts. "When I'm dealing with the younger, more idealistic people, they're with me," he says. "It's the senior people who are corrupted. The Saudis have networked their way into the power structure."

In the current atmosphere, Hunter says, he's finding support far beyond his usual right-wing circles, occasionally appearing locally on radio station WPBR (1340-AM) as part of Wil Van Natta's left-oriented talk show, "Reality News Radio," Tuesday mornings at 9. "The issue of Saudi religious intolerance didn't have much currency until 9/11," Hunter says. Now, however, "it cuts across the usual political lines, which are horseshit."

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