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     The art of spying on your "friends"

 

 

 

One of the strangest American stories after September 11 is that of an Israeli spy ring posing as art students. It is peculiar not only as the largest Israeli spy scandal in the USA, but also in the way it is being hushed up in the media and by politicians.

In March 2001, the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX), a branch of the CIA, issued a heads-up to federal employees about "suspicious visitors to federal facilities." The warning noted that "employees have observed both males and females attempting to bypass facility security and enter federal buildings." Federal agents, the warning stated, had "arrested two of these individuals for trespassing and discovered that the suspects possessed counterfeit work visas and green cards."

In the wake of the NCIX bulletin, federal officials raised several other red flags, including an Air Force alert, a Federal Protective Services alert, an Office of National Drug Control Policy security alert and a request that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) investigate a specific case. Officials began dealing more aggressively with the "art students." According to one account, some 140 Israeli nationals were detained or arrested between March 2001 and Sept. 11, 2001.

Many of them were deported. According to the INS, the deportations resulted from violations of student visas that forbade the Israelis from working in the United States.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, many more young Israelis - 60, according to one AP dispatch and other reports - were detained and deported.

In some cases, the Israelis visited locations not known to the public - areas without street addresses, for example, or DEA offices not identified as such leading authorities to suspect that information had been gathered from prior surveillance or perhaps electronically, from credit cards and other sources. One Israeli was discovered holding banking receipts for substantial sums of money, close to $180,000 in withdrawals and deposits over a two-month period.

According to the reports, young Israelis claiming to be art students and offering artwork for sale had been attempting to penetrate DEA offices for over a year.

The Israelis had also attempted to penetrate the offices of other law enforcement and Department of Defense agencies. Strangest of all, the "students" had visited the homes of numerous DEA officers and other senior federal officials.

Reports of the mysterious Israelis with an inexplicable interest in peddling art to G-men came in from more than 40 U.S. cities and continued throughout the first six months of 2001. Agents of the DEA, ATF, Air Force, Secret Service, FBI, and U.S. Marshals Service documented some 130 separate incidents of "art student" encounters. Some of the Israelis were observed diagramming the inside of federal buildings. Some were found carrying photographs they had taken of federal agents. One was discovered with a computer printout in his luggage that referred to "DEA groups".

The document detailing most of this information was an internal DEA memo: a 60‑page report drawn up in June 2001 by the DEA's Office of Security Programs. The document was meant only for the eyes of senior officials at the Justice Department (of which the DEA is adjunct), but it was leaked to the press as early as December 2001 and by mid‑March had been made widely available to the public.

Here are some examples of its contents:

On March 1, 2001, a DEA special agent in the Tampa division offices "responded to a knock at one of the fifth floor offices. At the door was a young female who immediately identified herself as an Israeli art student who had beautiful art to sell. She was carrying a crudely made portfolio of unframed pictures." Aware of the "art student" alert, the agent invited the girl to an interview room, where he was joined by a colleague to listen to the girl's presentation. "She had approximately 15 paintings of different styles, some copies of famous works, and others similar in style to famous artists. When asked hername, she identified herself as Bella Pollcson, and pointed out one of the paintings was signed by that name." Then things got interesting: In the middle of her presentation, she changed her story and claimed that the paintings were not for sale, but "that she was there to promote an art show in Sarasota, Fla., and asked for the agents' business cards so that information regarding the show could be mailed to them." Well, where's the show? asked the agents. When's it going up? Pollcson couldn't say: didn't know when or where - or even who was running it. Later it was determined that she had lied about her name as well.

On Oct. 20, 2000, in the Houston offices of the DEA, a "male Israeli art student was observed by the Security Officers [entering] an elevator from a secure area. [The officers] were able to apprehend the art student before he could enter a secure area on the second floor." Three months later, in January 2001, a "male Israeli" was apprehended attempting to enter the same building from a back door in a "secured parking lot area." He claimed "he wanted to gain access to the building to sell artwork."

On April 30, 2001, an Air Force alert was issued from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City concerning "possible intelligence collection being conducted by Israeli Art Students." Tinker AFB houses AWACS surveillance craft and Stealth bombers. The report does not elaborate on what kind of intelligence was being sought.

On May 19, 2001, two Israeli nationals "requested permission to visit a museum" at Volk Field Air National Guard Base in Camp Douglas, Wis. "Approximately ten minutes after being allowed on the base, the two were seen on an active runway, taking photographs." The men, charged with misdemeanor trespass, were identified as 26-year old Gal Kantor 8 and 22-year old Tsvi Watermann, and were released after paying a $210 fine. According to the Air Force security officer on duty, "Both were asked if they were involved in the selling of art while in the U.S. Kantor became very upset over this, and questioned why they were being asked about that ... Kantor's whole demeanor changed, and he then became uncooperative."

So it went week after week, month after month, for more than a year and a half. In addition to the locations mentioned above, there were "art student" encounters in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, El Paso, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, New Orleans, Phoenix, San Diego, Little Rock, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Arlington, Texas, Albuquerque, and dozens of other small cities and towns.

"Their stories," the DEA report states, "were remarkable only in their consistency. At first, they will state that they are art students, either from the University of Jerusalem or the Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem. Other times they will purport to be promoting a new art studio in the area. When pressed for details as to the location of the art studio or why they are selling the paintings, they become evasive."

They had reason to be nervous, because they were lying. None of the students was registered at the Bezalel Academy of Arts, either as current student or as a graduate of the past 10 years (nor had any of the "students" tried to apply to Bezalel in the last ten years). As for the University of Jerusalem, there is no such entity. There is the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but it is commonly referred to as Hebrew University, not the University of Jerusalem.

The story first broke in the media when on 1st October 2001 Texas newswoman Anna Werner, of KHOU-TV in Houston, told viewers about a "curious pattern of behavior" by people with "Middle Eastern looks" claiming to be Israeli art students. "Government guards have found those so-called students," reported Werner, "trying to get into [secure federal facilities in Houston] in ways they're not supposed to - through back doors and parking garages." Federal agents, she said, were extremely "concerned." The possibility was mentioned that such activity suggested a terrorist organization "scouting out potential targets and ... looking for targets that would be vulnerable."

Carl Cameron of the Fox News Channel also investigated the art students as a possible arm of Israeli espionage operations tracking al-Qaida operatives in the United States, trailing al-Qaida members in the weeks and months before September 11. He suggested that they may have known about the preparations for the September 11 attacks but failed to share this knowledge with U.S. intelligence. However, the story did not attract the sort of attention one would normally expect to be given to such explosive news suggesting a possible link to the dramatic events which shook America at the time. 

Only when the French publication Intelligence Online drew attention to the events and its story was picked up by the French Daily Le Monde, which claimed that a major Israeli spy ring orchestrated by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad had been operating in the United States, did Reuters and other news agencies pick up the story. Le Monde had unearthed a connection between some of the art students and a former Israeli vice consul to the United States who had put substantial resources at their disposal. Many of them also had a background in Israeli military intelligence or electronics surveillance; some had high ranking positions in the Israeli army. The Washington Post, however, dismissed the story as a widespread myth circulating for months but without substance.

What is more, only after Cameron had broadcast his investigation, all traces of his report transcripts, Web links, headlines disappeared from the Foxnews.com archives. When Le Monde contacted Fox in March for a copy of the original tapes, Fox News spokesmen said the request posed a problem but would not elaborate; they now say the request had never been made. Asked why the Cameron piece disappeared, spokesman Robert Zimmerman said it had been moved to the archives because of bandwidth restrictions, but when told that it could not be found in the archives either, he replied: "I don't know where it is."

In a further twist, it has just been announced that Israeli "spy-phone" company Comverse Infosys is now buying into the Instant Messaging business through Odigo, the largest Instant Messaging company. Odigo is the Israeli-owned company whose employees received a two-hour advance warning to leave their offices on September 11.

Given the increased recruitment campaigns for the Israeli intelligence service Mossad in the United States during the months prior to September 11 (in fact there is an ongoing Mossad recruitment for operatives with foreign languages like Arabic and Urdu), the most benign explanation for the art students' saga may be that it has been a training exercise for new recruits.  

Author: Islamic Party of  Britain
Date Published: June 2002

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