In the East Room of the White House, On May 10, 2007, President George W. Bush presided over a ceremony which honored the most accomplished community services leaders of the nation. Kay Hiramine, a Colorado-based enthusiastic Christian and the founder of a multimillion-dollar humanitarian organization, was among the people there that afternoon to collect a President’s Volunteer Service Award.
Hiramine ran an NGO named Humanitarian International Services Group or HISG for short, which had won special praise from the president for the demonstration of quick responses of a charity to cases of crises. The crisis mentioned distinctively here was Hurricane Katrina, and the work done by HISG was being lauded by the president, and Hiramine had gloated about his NGO’s work by not failing to mention that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, his NGO launched a private sector operation center in Houston. The center helped mobilize over 1,500 volunteers into the disaster-struck zone within a month after the hurricane. But Hiramine and the Bush administration both had hidden a very big fact from the rest of the onlookers and the world that Hiramine was, in fact, a spy, and his NGO was a front for the Pentagon’s operations in North Korea.
CIA backing of NGOs willing to make an extra buck
According to a report published by The Intercept, a highly classified Defense Department program which dates to 2004, had funded HISG, and it continued functioning until 2012. The program was concocted by Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin, a senior Defense Department intelligence official, during the Bush administration. Boykin is considered to be a zealous Christian and has been previously criticized for his statements about Islam. He also developed the unorthodox deceptive method to use NGOs to collect Intelligence since they could get in to North Korea and go to places where access would be denied otherwise.
Entrance into North Korea with any equipment deemed unfit by the government is impossible. Moreover, the security and lack of any privacy rights make North Korea the most difficult intelligence-gathering ground and has been proven as such for the U.S. in recent years. One of the former military officials familiar with U.S. intelligence efforts in North Korea said that the U.S. had nothing inside North Korea — zero assets or equipment. However, under the guise of humanitarian aid to North Korea’s desperate people, HISG was able to go where entrance and movement for others would have been impossible.
According to a former military official familiar with the program and certain documents, the funding from the Pentagon was hidden in a complex web of organizations specifically designed to mask the origin of the funding. Hiramine’s ruse of running an NGO finally dismantled in 2013, but by that time, it had received millions of dollars in funding from the Pentagon.
The early days of HISG
The origin of HISG can be traced back to a small organization created by Hiramine and three friends shortly after the events of 9/11. According to the organization’s official documents, it was created in the hopes of providing sustainable development and disaster relief in poor and war-torn countries. For its first two years, the organization stayed a fledgling faith-based charity, but things started to change after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. Hiramine and his friends shipped medical supplies to a hospital in Afghanistan, and by 2003, HISG had made connections with the Pentagon through a small group called the Afghanistan Reachback Office. This was the time to make the real money while rubbing shoulders with the most influential people of that time.
The same year in the newly-created office of the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Boykin was made a deputy, given his special military career covering many high-risk missions prior to 9/11. With the rise in the war against terrorism, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tasked Stephen Cambone and Boykin with increasing the Pentagon’s ability to perform intelligence operations independent of the CIA while keeping the CIA in the loop.
Boykin adopted the CIA’s methodologies in looking for ways to provide cover for Pentagon espionage operations, and in this regard the practice of using NGOs, which are usually given access to places by North Korean officials, was established. Small and already-existing and working NGOs were funded, while some were created from the scratch by the Pentagon. The Pentagon used several NGOs this way, and Hiramine’s group was one of them and perhaps the most important one at that.
At the time the Pentagon launched this program, Hiramine’s NGO was considered a well-oiled organization, given that it had supplied many shipments of medical equipment, clothing and disaster relief supplies around the world, and at least once between 2004 and 2006, Hiramine had coordinated a humanitarian shipment to North Korea through his NGO.
This made HISG the perfect candidate for the Pentagon to use to launch its operation. To start the operation, a faith-based donation of clothing was proposed, since the North Korean government occasionally accepts such donations to help its population endure the country’s harsh winters. However, underneath the clothing in a hidden compartment, a number of Bibles were hidden to be transported into the country as a test run. Since any religious activity that deviates from communist ideology is prohibited in North Korea, the Bibles made perfect sense for a faith-based charity, and since it was successful, the Pentagon used the same methodology to smuggle spoofers, shortwave radios, military sensors and other equipment into the country.
Hiramine was tasked with gathering intelligence to find transportation routes to move military equipment and to find potentially clandestine operatives in and around the country. The mlitary refers to what Hiramine was doing in North Korea as “operational preparation of the environment” or OPE, a category that encompasses clandestine intelligence gathering and prepositioning equipment inside a country for future conflicts. Hiramine used HISG’s access to the country in order to get the assignments done. As CEO of HISG, Hiramine used Christian missionaries, aid workers, and Chinese smugglers to move equipment into and around North Korea. Hiramine himself entered North Korea at least twice using his position as CEO of HISG. The official documents of HISG boast about the fact that during the first 10 years of its operation, it successfully shipped winter clothing, including “ski jackets,” into North Korea, the actual meaning of which for most of its employees was unknown.
Later on, the network of intelligence and the modes of access to the country were formally given over to the CIA in IIRs, or “intelligence information reports.” The CIA also directed all questions about Hiramine to the Pentagon.
A good ploy by the CIA?
Sam Worthington, president of InterAction, an association of nearly 200 American NGOs, has deemed it unacceptable that the Pentagon or any other U.S. agency use an NGO for intelligence purposes. He also considers it a violation of the civic sector. According to a senior government official who did not know about the operation, using NGOs for Intelligence-gathering purposes may cause more harm than good, as it happened in Pakistan when the CIA, in hunt of Osama Bin Laden, recruited a doctor to get DNA samples under the pretense of a polio vaccination campaign. This resulted in not only the capture of the doctor but to this day, the Taliban and residents of Taliban-influenced areas have been highly violent towards polio workers and health ministry officials, which in turn has seen a rise in polio cases in a region which previously had a lot fewer cases.
Indeed, the consequences of such operations stand to create more problems than solutions. The example of the recent shift in attitude of Pakistanis living in tribal areas towards polio vaccination serves as a big example of how these covert operations conducted under the guise of humanitarian aid, when exposed, could really affect the host country. Moreover, with the way the North Korean government treats its citizens in general, such activities will only make the despotic regime tighten its borders even further, which will affect the local population more and will also cause NGOs that are out for solely humanitarian purposes to also be painted with the same brush as the Pentagon-backed NGOs are.