Was it worth it?

Right now, somewhere in North Korea, agents of the Ministry of People’s Security and State Security Department have just finished reading this article, and are making plans to comb selected areas of His Corpulency’s kingdom for every person who might have had contact with the Christian NGO Humanitarian International Services Group, or HISG, during the years that it operated in North Korea. Yesterday, The Intercept reported that the Pentagon funneled money to HISG, which smuggled Bibles into North Korea in false compartments at the bottom of its aid shipments, for also agreeing to bring in gizmos to help us keep track of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Apparently, it occurred to someone in the Pentagon that it’s important to have the best possible intelligence about a rogue state’s WMD programs. Especially a state that’s willing to sell them to the highest bidder.

Now, I take it that from a certain nihilistic perspective, if there’s a greater evil than America itself, it’s giving a Bible to some poor wretch who lives in a totalitarian deiocracy that forces him to worship a mummified corpse. Granted, there’s a good ethical question to be asked as to whether putting a Bible in a stranger’s hands is more likely to endanger him than fulfill his spiritual needs, but that’s not the argument The Intercept is riding. I suppose there are ethical arguments to be made about using NGOs as cover for espionage, but it’s not as if North Korea offers a lot of alternatives. (Next time, try “journalist.” Tell ‘em Glenn Greenwald sent you.) Nor is it a practice without widespread precedent by us, by other countries, and by the North Koreans. I don’t remember hearing The Intercept complaining about the revelation by a U.N. Panel of Experts that North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau infiltrated UNESCO and the World Food Program, almost assuredly for the purpose of manipulating its monitoring requirements, so that Pyongyang could continue to divert the aid and let millions of underprivileged North Koreans continue to go hungry.

What’s hardest for me to understand, however, is why The Intercept granted anonymity to its government sources and a former HISG worker, but chose to name North Korea (which was apparently just one of the places where HISG operated). Does Matthew Cole know how obsessively and ruthlessly Pyongyang pursues any hint of dissent, or any association with religious ideas? Does he know how Pyongyang uses collective punishment against three generations of the thought criminal’s family? Or the abhorrent conditions in which dissidents are executed publicly, or sent to prolonged deaths in political prison camps as horrific as anything the world has seen since the U.S. Army reached the gates of Mauthausen in 1945? Or is it that these things simply matter less than the compelling public interest value of his Big Story? 

And what compelling public interest justified the need to endanger the NGOs that are still working in North Korea — along with hundreds, if not thousands, of North Koreans, and their families? A program that the Pentagon itself voluntarily abandoned three years ago. 

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Update: Chad O’Carroll raises a new question — could the whole Intercept story be bullshit anyway?

“I have never heard of HISG or Kay Heramine,” said David Austin, former DPRK Program Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Mercy Corps. “None of my former NGO colleagues had ever heard of this group, nor of Kay Hiramine.”

“I have never heard of this guy, or his organization … and North Korea is a small community. We run into each other, we stay at the same hotels, we (often) go to the same churches.”

The source added that even if Heramine’s three trips had taken place with direct Pentagon involvement, they would have been of limited value.

“Three trips over several years is completely meaningless: You have no relationships, there’s no systems setup, and there’s no transportation network,” the source said.

Well, maybe. I suspect the SSD boys will want to interrogate a few dozen (or a few hundred) people before deciding that. What I still can’t rationalize is what ends justify the risk of getting a few hundred innocent men, women, and children shot, tortured, or sent to a gulag. Is unilaterally exposing and disarming the U.S. intelligence community an end that leads to anything but global anarchy and terror — and a backlash that would ultimately do great harm to our civil liberties?


  1. What I still can’t rationalize is what ends justify the risk of getting a few hundred innocent men, women, and children shot, tortured, or sent to a gulag.

    People have noticed before that Glenn Greenwald’s hatred of imperialism extends only as far as it’s Western imperialism to be decried.

    There is an element of the Global Left that despises America and everything it does, to the point where their morals are so perverted as to be incapable of recognizing evil outside of the US.


  2. [Posted by Joshua for reader “Kj,” who is having technical trouble posting a comment.]

    In my humble opinion, there are some serious questions about the credibility of Mr. Cole’s report.

    “None of the former officials with knowledge of the program whom I spoke with would … describe the intelligence that Hiramine was able to gather.”
    So the author has not seen any of the supposed intelligence, no one he spoke to had seen any of it, and no one he spoke to could even describe what was in it, and yet he’s certain they exist? Seems legit. Allegations are not facts, even if they make for a more lively headline.

    “It is unclear how exactly Hiramine became involved in the Pentagon espionage effort”
    There are a lot of baseless allegations in this story that are “unclear.” There is no evidence. His sources are anonymous. His conclusions are rarely more than conjecture. Working Partners Foundation, like every foundation, required detailed, regular reporting on all the grants they awarded. All the money they gave can be traced. It was not channeled to East Asian operatives. And he offers no evidence that the New Millennium Trust received money from the Pentagon. He simply asks readers to accept the lone anonymous source, and then he refers to everything Working Partners Foundation granted as “Pentagon money.” As an aside, our intelligence community needs a private place to stash money and the most low-profile arrangement they can come up with is a fund run by a retired Delta Force lawyer who keeps top secret government clearance?! The leaps of logic that Mr. Cole’s article requires make it just so, so sloppy.

    “That official would not say whether Hiramine was tasked with operating in countries besides North Korea”
    Why would these supposedly well-connected sources not say? These people who supposedly knew the nature of goods smuggled into North Korea 8-10 years ago, and allegedly had no second thoughts about divulging the name of the Pentagon slush fund? May I humbly submit that the reason they would not say is because they did not know? And if I may, I would suggest the reason they did not know is because virtually every pertinent detail of this story seem made up.

    “In at least one case, according to tax filings, Working Partners gave roughly $200,000 to a U.S.-based ministry that ‘delivers Bibles… to the persecuted church in the Gospel restricted nation of North Korea.'”
    Please note how all the other tax records have detailed time frames and can name recipients, and yet this one cannot. Readers are expected to believe that the author was able to ascertain the total amount given from Working Partners Foundation to HISG, but on this tax filing the recipient’s name was unavailable? I suspect he knows this wasn’t HISG, and that’s why he didn’t print it. He just threw it into the story because it fit his narrative and he knew readers would infer that he was talking about HISG. That is a manipulation that most writers grow out of in 9th grade.

    “The Pentagon tasked 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”
    “if the program had produced better intelligence McRaven would have considered keeping it up and running.”
    These two statements seem contradictory. Was HISG so adept at espionage that it was able to smuggle Bibles and military equipment into a country that prior efforts had been unable to penetrate? Or was it so pointless that it was shut down?

    Cole has pieced together hearsay, coincidental fact, uncorroborated allegations and unsubstantiated claims from anonymous sources into a mildly interesting yet ultimately muddled presentation. Which would not be such a bad thing (there is certainly worse writing on the internet) if it wasn’t so childishly irresponsible and naive. Perhaps he doesn’t know, or maybe just doesn’t care, that he more or less labeled anyone who ever worked with this NGO as a missionary, smuggler, spy, or some combination of the three. For what? I hope it was worth it. This is not journalism. This is tabloid, sensational, and appears ego driven. Ryan was absolutely correct to question him about the people he put in harms way.