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Investigative Report
Intelligence Agents Or Art Students?

Posted March 11, 2002

After Sept. 11 many young Israelis like these were detained by INS for visa violations and released. Others, however, were deported under mysterious circumstances.
Media Credit: Suzan Pfanmuller/KRT
After Sept. 11 many young Israelis like these were detained by INS for visa violations and released. Others, however, were deported under mysterious circumstances.
From Paris to Washington to New York City and back again, a story has reverberated about an alleged Israeli spy ring that was busted in the United States last year. Intelligence Online, a well-respected Internet news service broke the explosive story, which quickly was picked up by Le Monde in France, then the Associated Press (AP) in Washington and other news outlets.

These stories all seem to track a similar report last December by Carl Cameron of Fox News outlining concerns among U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence agencies that an Israeli-based network of operatives was spying or otherwise engaged in information-gathering activities within the United States. All the news agencies said or mentioned that many of those under investigation subsequently were deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for visa violations. Most also quoted named and unnamed Israeli spokesmen as saying that Israel doesn't spy on the United States and that whatever these Israeli citizens were doing was not criminal even if inappropriate and in violation of their visas.

Insight already was investigating such allegations and had obtained numerous documents for what from the beginning was planned as an investigative report. Amid the breaking news of the so-called "Israeli spy-ring bust," it is time to clear the air on a variety of real and half-baked charges reported by others. Specifically:

  • The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began an "unprecedented" internal-security investigation early last spring following reports from field agents and regional offices involving suspicious activities by Israeli citizens engaged in the sale of artwork and paintings throughout the Southeast, South and Southwest, including Florida, Texas and California.

  • The "Israeli art students" so dubbed because that's how they described themselves to various law-enforcement officials when confronted were both male and female and, as appropriate to their ages and required under Israeli law, served that nation's military.

  • These alleged students traveled in "organized" teams of eight to 10 people, with each group having a team leader.

  • Reports of Israeli art students calling on DEA employees began at least as early as January 2000 and continued through at least June 2001.

  • These unusual visits at both the homes and offices of DEA officers were expanded to include employees of "several other law-enforcement and Department of Defense agencies."

  • "The number of reported incidents has declined" since spring 2001, though the "geographic spread of the incidents has increased to Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Los Angeles."

  • The stories offered by the Israeli art students "are remarkable in their consistency" insofar as they state they either are from the University of Jerusalem or the Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem."

  • Despite the students' claims that they had themselves produced the artwork or paintings they were offering for sale, "information has been received which indicates the art is actually produced in China."

All this is contained in official DEA documents obtained by Insight, including one produced in early June 2001. These represent an extraordinary compilation by DEA's Office of Security Programs chronicling not only contacts of DEA personnel at home or at their offices, but also similar incidents involving employees of other agencies and the military.

"It is a very alarming set of documents," says one high-ranking federal law-enforcement official when told of the cache of materials collected by Insight. "This shows how serious DEA and Justice consider this activity."

Indeed, says a senior Justice Department official briefed on an ongoing multiagency task force, "We think there is something quite sinister here but are unable at this time to put our finger on it." But, said another federal law-enforcement source: "The higher-ups don't want to deal with this and neither does the FBI because it involves Israel."

One report, Suspicious Activities Involving Israeli Art Students at DEA Facilities, lists more than 180 documented-incident cases. Analysts tell Insight they appear to be attempts "to circumvent the access-control systems at DEA offices" and to capture personal information about private lives of DEA law-enforcement officers, such as where they live, what cars they drive and how they behave outside of their official offices. This was concluded, in part, based on photographs made of U.S. law officers and other materials seized by a variety of federal and local law-enforcement officers during searches.

"The nature of the individuals' conduct, combined with intelligence information and historical information regarding past incidents involving Israeli organized crime, leads IS [DEA's Internal Security division] to believe the incidents may well be an organized intelligence-gathering activity," a classified document euphemizes.

The documents do not clearly label the activities of the so-called art students as a government-sanctioned spying operation, as widely reported. But they do make clear there is a covert nature to the well-orchestrated activities. In one reference, DEA said telephone numbers obtained from one encounter with its agents in Orlando, Fla., "have been linked to several ongoing DEA MDMA [the illegal drug Ecstasy] investigations in Florida, California, Texas and New York now being closely coordinated by DEA headquarters" in Washington.

A review of passports obtained by law enforcement also showed that a majority of the students traveled to numerous countries, including Thailand, Laos, India, Kenya, Central and South America, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada.

Besides federal law-enforcement incidents, DEA's IS unit found that several military bases also had experienced unauthorized entries by some of the students, including two bases from which Stealth aircraft and other supersecret military units operate. Unauthorized photographing of military sites and civilian industrial complexes, such as petroleum-storage facilities, also was reported to the DEA, the documents show and interviews confirm.

In virtually every incident of the many reported by the entire DEA field-office structure the pattern was similar: Students would attempt to enter secure buildings, take photographs, follow federal agents when they left buildings, show up at their homes, take pictures of their cars and circle their neighborhoods, visiting only their houses and then departing.

"This is very odd behavior under any situation," says a current DEA official who had heard but not yet seen the reports until Insight shared them. "The patterns are clear and they pose a significant danger to our officers in the field." Maybe U.S. national security.

On March 4, Intelligence Online reported that U.S. authorities had busted an Israeli spy ring in the United States that had sought to penetrate various federal law-enforcement agencies and military establishments. According to one wire report, the online service also said that documents it had obtained showed "a huge Israeli spy ring operating in the United States was rolled up by the Justice Department's counter-espionage service" last year.

Once newspapers and the AP picked the story up, FBI officials downplayed it, telling reporters that no charges of espionage had been filed. The carefully worded statements left out any mention of whether spying was suspected. FBI and INS officials told newsmen that most of those involved an estimated 100 or so "Israeli art students" overstayed their visas and had been deported. Some also were found to have illegal drugs or admitted to illegal-drug usage and were deported for this, too, documents showed and officials confirm to Insight.

A spokesmen for the Israeli Embassy in Washington says suggestions of espionage are nonsense and that all that might have been involved was a few visa violations. "If there were crimes committed then why weren't any of these people charged?" a spokesman asked. "That's not to say that there isn't any organized crime involving Israeli citizens," said another Israeli official when asked about DEA concern that the art students might have been tied to a criminal syndicate. "If that is so, I hope they put them in jail. We don't need those types of people, no matter who they are, loose on the streets."

This Israeli government official also tells Insight that his government's police and intelligence services cooperate fully with their counterparts in the United States, including the ongoing Ecstasy investigation mentioned in one of the DEA documents this magazine has obtained. "It is unfortunately a big problem, and we are working to help stop it," the Israeli official confirms.

FBI and Justice spokesmen have sought either to downplay or knock out the stories even discredit the DEA reports and their authors. But if DEA was wrong then how can Justice explain this item Insight discovered that was circulated by a little-known but sensitive White House agency called the U.S. Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive.

That agency not only circulated an internal warning to intelligence, federal law enforcement and White House planners three full months before DEA issued its own internal report but also posted on its site a warning to all federal employees about Israeli art students aggressively trying to enter federal facilities and going to the homes of senior federal agents. The same thing apparently was going on with a non-Israeli outfit with possible ties to a Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalist group.

Paul M. Rodriguez is managing editor of Insight.

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