Israeli and American officials are dismissing as groundless a spate of recent reports about Israeli spying on U.S. government buildings and military facilities and about possible prior Israeli knowledge of the September 11 attacks.
At least some elements of the reports, however, have received confirmation from officials at the Drug Enforcement Agency and the FBI, who acknowledge having investigated the Israelis cited in the press reports, although the FBI said it found “no credence” to the spying allegations.
Last week, a French newsletter, Intelligence Online, reported that U.S. authorities arrested or expelled some 120 Israelis identified as art students because they were part of a spy ring allegedly trying to penetrate federal buildings and military facilities.
The publication based its account on a June 2001 DEA draft report cataloguing the suspicious activities of those so-called art students. The report was later handed over to the FBI.
A few days after the French online report, Le Monde, France’s newspaper of record, raised the possibility that the Israeli art students were in fact trailing Al Qaeda operatives. Le Monde said this possibility gave credence to the hypothesis that Israel had not shared with Washington all the information it had gathered on the September 11 attacks.
Israeli intelligence officials dismissed the French allegations as preposterous. “This is just ridiculous,” said Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet general security service, echoing several current Israeli officials. “Since the Pollard affair, there is a consensus in the Israeli intelligence community that spying on America is harmful,” he added. He was referring to former U.S. Navy intelligence officer Jonathan Pollard, whose arrest in 1986 on charges of spying for Israel caused a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations.
Thomas Hinojosa, a DEA spokesman, said that he couldn’t authenticate the draft report. However, he confirmed that individuals purporting to be Israeli art students had attempted to establish contact with DEA agents and to enter federal buildings on at least several occasions.
“Our agents noted suspicious activities and reported them to our headquarters last year,” he said. “This was compiled into an internal document and then referred to law enforcement agencies.”
Bill Carter, a spokesman for the FBI, acknowledged that the bureau had investigated the case.
“After an agency reported suspicious activities by those so-called students, the FBI conducted an investigation and determined that there was no credence to the assumption that this was an Israeli spying operation,” he said. “None of the Israelis were charged with espionage and they were all deported by the INS for visa violations.”
American suspicion about the activities of “Israeli art students” and Israeli spying in general is nothing new.
In March 2001, the federal National Counterintelligence Executive issued a warning urging employees to report all contact with people describing themselves as Israeli art students. It said some had gone to the private residences of senior U.S. officials under the guise of selling art.
“These individuals have been described as aggressive,” the warning said. “They attempt to engage employees in conversation rather than giving a sales pitch.”
However, the warning added that there may be two groups involved, one with an “apparently legitimate money-making goal while the second, perhaps a non-Israeli group, may have ties to a Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalist group.”
In recent years two reports, one by the Government Accounting Office, the other by the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned against Israeli economic and military espionage activity in the United States. In addition, the FBI conducted an investigation during the late 1990s into alleged Israeli wiretapping of the White House, the State Department and the National Security Council. The investigation ended in May 2000 without any result, according to The New York Times.
Several young Israelis who were detained after September 11 in Ohio, Florida, California, Pennsylvania and Missouri told the Forward they were questioned about possible intelligence activities.
“After they realized we were no terrorists, they thought we were spying on local Arabs and they grilled us,” said Yaniv Hani, who was arrested with 12 Israelis in Ohio and released in late December. “Basically, they were shooting in all directions.”
The preliminary DEA report, which was reportedly authored by a task force involving the INS, the DEA, the FBI and the Air Force, summarized the findings of the questioning of the so-called students between January and May 2001 after more than 100 were arrested, mostly in California, Florida and Texas.
According to Intelligence Online, the Israelis implicated were between 22 and 30 years of age and the network had around 20 “cells.”
The report said they tried to penetrate several government facilities, including the Tinker Air Base in Oklahoma City where AWACS surveillance planes and many B-1 bombers are repaired.
The draft report allegedly states that most of the students questioned acknowledged serving in military intelligence, electronic signals interception or explosive ordnance units.
The news picked up steam after it was relayed and amplified by Le Monde. In its own reporting, Le Monde added that Israeli spies may have been trailing Al Qaeda members in the United States without informing Washington. Le Monde noted that more than one-third of the Israelis under investigation lived in Florida, which served as a temporary home base to at least 10 of the 19 hijackers in the September 11 attacks.
Those elements, Le Monde wrote, support “the thesis according to which Israel did not share with the U.S. all the elements it had about the planning of the September 11 attacks.” Fox News also made such allegations in December.
Both the French and the Fox reports were dismissed by Israel and its supporters and received limited coverage in the American media.
“People are just planting falsehoods,” said Uzi Arad, a former head of the Mossad.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official offered a different hypothesis.
“My guess and the one I heard from people in counterintelligence is that this could have been an Israeli training exercise, because they were all young and amateurish,” he said.