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.
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."
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."
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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."