A major international espionage saga is unfolding across the United States. It's been pretty hush-hush so far, largely because the implications could be a major embarrassment for the government. The spy story is even more touchy because it isn't Saddam, Fidel, Osama or even what passes nowadays for the KGB spying on America -- but our "friend" in the war against "evil," Israel.
The basis of the spy allegations is a 60-page document -- a compilation of field reports by Drug Enforcement Administration agents and other U.S. law enforcement officials.
A copy of the report was obtained from intelligence sources with long-term contacts among both Israeli and American agencies. The government has attempted to deflect attention from earlier leaks about the spy scandal. However, while declining to confirm or deny the authenticity of the document, a spokesman for the DEA, William Glaspy, did acknowledge that the agency had received many reports of the nature described in the 60 pages. Jack Wall, DEA's supervisor in Montgomery, AL said the portions of the document pertaining to his office were "definitely" accurate.
DEA agents say that the 60-page document was a draft intended as the base for a 250-page report. The larger report has not been produced because of the volatile nature of suggesting that Israel spies on America's deepest secrets.
Another DEA spokesperson, Rogene Waite, told Associated Press the draft document had been compiled and forwarded to other agencies.
The validity of the scenarios described in the document is attested to in at least one official mention. The Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, in a March 2001 summary, reported on "suspicious visitors to federal facilities" and noted the type of "aggressive" activity recounted in the document.
The nation's most prominent Jewish newspaper, the New York-based Forward, also has confirmed portions of the vast spying network -- although stating that the Israelis were monitoring Arabs in the United States, not trying to access U.S. secrets. Referring to the arrest of five Israeli employees of a New Jersey moving company who were arrested and held for two months after the Sept. 11 attack, Forward on March 15 stated: "According to one former high-ranking American intelligence official, who asked not to be named, the FBI came to the conclusion at the end of its investigation that the five Israelis ... were conducting a Mossad surveillance mission and that their employer, Urban Moving Systems of Weehawken, N.J., served as a front."
Forward also reported that a counterintelligence probe concluded two of the men were operatives of Mossad, Israel's spy service.
Reports of the spying were first made public in December broadcasts by Fox News reporter Carl Cameron. It isn't clear whether he had the 60-page document or was only told its contents. A French online news service has obtained the report, and Le Monde in Paris has advanced the story. However, in the United States, the media ignored the original Fox broadcast, and only a handful of publications have aggressively pursued the story in recent weeks.
The absence of reporting hasn't gone unnoticed. The authoritative British intelligence and military analysis service, Jane's Information Group, on March 13 chided: "It is rather strange that the U.S. media with one notable exception seem to be ignoring what may well prove to be the most explosive story since the 11 September attack, the alleged breakup of a major Israeli espionage operation in the United States which aimed to infiltrate both the Justice and Defense departments and which may also have been tracking al-Qaida terrorists before the aircraft hijackings took place." In flat language and sometimes excruciating bureaucratic detail, the document relates scores of encounters between federal agents and Israelis describing themselves as art students. The implication is that the seemingly innocuous cover was used to gain access to sensitive U.S. offices and military installations. For example, Paragraph 82 of the document states that MacDill Air Force Base intelligence officers were warned in March 2001 of the art students' efforts. A month later, a special alert was issued about a "possible intelligence collection effort" at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City - among other activities, the base houses AWACS surveillance planes and repairs B-1 bombers.
The author of the document is not identified. However, many DEA and other law enforcement agents are named. Three federal employees have confirmed the incidents described in the report. None disputed the authenticity of the report. One senior DEA official, when read paragraphs that mentioned him, said: "Absolutely, that's my report," adding, however, that he didn't think the incidents were sufficient to prove an ongoing spy operation. All of the federal employees said they could not be quoted by name. The specific incidents are richly chronicled, down to names, drivers' license numbers, addresses and phone numbers of the Israelis.
Perhaps most intriguing, the Israelis' military and intelligence specialties are listed: "special forces," "intelligence officer," "demolition/explosive ordnance specialist," "bodyguard to head of Israeli army," "electronic intercept operator" -- even "son of a two-star (Israeli) army general."
"The activities of these Israeli art students raised the suspicion of (the DEA's Office of Security Programs) and other field offices when attempts were made to circumvent the access control systems at DEA offices, and when these individuals began to solicit their paintings at the homes of DEA employees," the document states. "The nature of the individuals' conduct, combined with intelligence information and historical information regarding past incidents (involving Israelis leads the DEA) to believe the incidents may well be an organized intelligence gathering activity."
The document also links the Israelis to possible drug investigations. The report states: "DEA Orlando has developed the first drug nexus to this group. Telephone numbers obtained from an Israeli Art Student encountered at the Orlando (district office) have been linked to several ongoing DEA MDMA (Ecstasy) investigations in Florida, California, Texas, and New York."
Much of the Israeli activity, according to the report, centered on Florida. In addition to attempting to gain access to government installations, the document states that the Israelis approached many intelligence agents, prosecutors and federal marshals at their homes -- including one incident on Davis Islands.
Further research revealed other encounters not included in the 60-page report. For example, a member of Congress from Georgia recounted of being targeted by the art students. A Hillsborough County judge was also approached. Neither the member of Congress nor the judge wanted to be named.
In an era where CNN CEO Walter Issacson says it would be "perverse" to televise Afghan babies killed by U.S. bombs, it's not surprising some stories go unnoticed by a press that embraces "patriotism" by ignoring sacred cows.
One such sacred cow is what's happening in Israel and Palestine. Reporters know that to criticize Israel -- to point out, for example, that wanton killing of innocents is equally devilish, whether committed by Ariel Sharon's soldiers flying U.S.-made helicopters, or by a Hamas suicide bomber who pushes the button -- is to risk being called an anti-Semite. It's a tired canard meant to bludgeon debate into silence, but it's often effective.
Even with that background, however, it's a little hard to understand the media's avoidance of the spy story. In 1999, word began spreading among intelligence agencies about bands of Israeli "students" doing very strange things, such as popping up around federal buildings and military establishments marketing artwork.
According to intelligence sources, low-level alerts began being flashed around to offices of the FBI, DEA, federal prosecutors and others. By March 23, 2001, counterintelligence officials had issued a bulletin to be on the watch for Israelis masquerading as "art students." The alert stated that there was an "ongoing "security threat' in the form of individuals who are purportedly "Israeli National Art Students' that are targeting government offices selling "artwork.'"
At the same time, American intelligence services were increasingly worried by the dominance of many highly sensitive areas of telecommunications by Israeli companies. Comverse Infosys (now called Verint) provides U.S. lawmen with computer equipment for wiretapping. Speculation is that "catch gates" in the system allowed listeners to be listened to. Software made by another Israeli outfit, Amdocs, provided extensive records of virtually all calls placed by the 25 largest U.S. telephone companies. The relationship of those companies to the detained Israelis is detailed in the 60-page document. The DEA's intense interest in the case stems from its 1997 purchase of $25-million in interception equipment from Israeli companies, according to a March 14 report by Intelligence Online, a French Web-based service that first revealed the existence of the 60-page document.
"In assigning so many resources to the inquiry (all DEA offices were asked to contribute)," Intelligence Online stated, "the agency was clearly worried that its own systems might have been compromised." Often the Israeli "students" sold their artwork on street locations near federal buildings. In Tampa on March 1, 2001, a DEA agent heard a knock on his office door. According to the government report: "At the door was a young female who immediately identified herself as an Israeli art student who had beautiful art to sell." Knowing about the security alert, the agent began questioning the "student." After several contradictory statements, the agent concluded "her responses were evasive at best."
A few days earlier, on Feb. 27, law enforcement officials had become suspicious when another Israeli showed up at the Davis Islands home of a U.S. Marshal selling artwork. The reported noted that the Israelis were "persistent in trying to get inside" intelligence agents' homes, often asking to use the telephone.
Altogether, the list of Florida incidents accounts for about eight pages of the 60-page report.
One of the first encounters to raise suspicions was in December 2000 in Atlanta. A DEA agent was approached at his home by two Israelis who wanted to sell him artwork. The agent became suspicious when the "students" wouldn't provide him with contact information -- and his angst was heightened when he later saw the same artwork for sale at the suburban Mall of Georgia.
Many of the apparent operatives had set up shop at addresses only stones' throws from Arabs in San Diego, Little Rock, Irving, Texas, and in South Florida. Also obtained was a watch list of mostly Arabs under scrutiny by the U.S. government. The addresses of many correspond to the specific areas where the Israelis set up operations.
For example, an address for the Sept. 11 hijacking leader, Mohammad Atta, is 3389 Sheridan St. in Hollywood, Fla., only a few blocks and a few hundred feet from the address of some of the Israelis, at 4220 Sheridan.
A dozen Israelis, including the alleged surveillance leader, had been based in Hollywood, Fla., between January and June last year -- quite possibly watching Arabs living nearby who are suspected of providing logistical support to Osama bin Laden's network. Especially in Florida, where 10 of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists lived, the revelations about the Israeli activities bolster speculation, reported by a Fox news reporter, that the students-cum-spies might have gained advance knowledge of aspects of the Sept. 11 terrorists -- and not passed on that critical intelligence to the United States. Planet sources with Israeli connections suggest that the information might have been relayed to U.S. agencies, but might have been ignored or overlooked.
Despite the highly suspect behavior of the Israelis, the media hadn't picked up on the story.
Then came Sept. 11. While America was mesmerized by the "War on Terrorism," the media went out to a four-martini lunch when it came to skeptical reporting.
With a few commendable exceptions. One of those is Carl Cameron, a gutsy reporter for Fox News. On Dec. 12, Cameron broke the blockbuster spy story. He said at the time: "Since Sept. 11, more than 60 Israelis have been arrested or detained, either under the new PATRIOT anti-terrorism law, or for immigration violations. A handful of active Israeli military were among those detained, according to investigators, who say some of the detainees also failed polygraph questions when asked about alleged surveillance activities against and in the United States."
Fox also reported the Israeli "students" "targeted" U.S. military bases -- which is bolstered by the report.
In the rest of the world -- Europe, Arab countries and Israel, especially -- the story made headlines. Even the official Chinese news agency perked up. Not in our well-defended (against disturbing news) homeland, however.
Cameron, in an interview, said he doesn't believe the conspiracy theories about why the story was ignored here. An honest scribe, he points to a shortcoming in his own work -- one hammered on by Israeli critics at the time -- conceding "there were no (on the record) interviews. I didn't tell other reporters where to find the documents. They couldn't do instant journalism."
Others at Fox confirm there was intense pressure on the network by pro-Israeli lobbying groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the misnamed Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA).
"These charges are arrant nonsense unworthy of the usually reliable Fox News," CAMERA huffed in a Dec. 12 release.
Cameron reported Dec. 13 that federal agents were afraid to criticize Israel. "Investigators within the DEA, INS and FBI have all told Fox News that to pursue or even suggest Israeli spying ... is considered career suicide."
Cameron told me in similar language that's what journalists also can face. And, what's clear is that Fox quickly removed the story from its Web site. (It was reposted this month by Fox after other media began showing interest in the story.)
After Cameron's initial reports, the story pretty much evaporated in the United States before Christmas. Then, all hell broke loose in the last few weeks. Intelligence Online in France obtained the same 60-page June 2001 federal report. The French Web site reported that 120 Israelis had by now been detained or deported by U.S. authorities.
Let's repeat that: 120 potential spies. This isn't worth press curiosity?
Few papers have given the story significant space. Many haven't uttered a peep.
Some of what has seeped out is disturbing. The Oklahoman, prompted by the French articles, reported last week that 10 months ago four Israelis peddling artwork (but carrying military IDs) were detained near sensitive Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Le Monde in Paris recounted that six intercepted "students" had cell phones purchased by an Israeli vice consul in the United States. Sources told me that many of the phones had a walkie-talkie feature that was virtually impossible to intercept.
Bush administration shills were quick to try to spin the story -- perhaps to minimize damage, should it turn out the government did have information in advance about the people or activities that led to the Sept. 11 attack. A Justice Department spokesperson, Susan Dryden, called the spy report an "urban myth," and other federal flacks trumpeted that no Israeli had been charged with or deported for spying. Of course, in the Great Game, "friendly" spies are seldom embarrassed by being called by their true colors.
The Washington Post, which apparently doesn't have the 60-page document, nonetheless reported March 6 that unnamed law enforcement officials had told the paper that a "disgruntled" DEA agent had compiled the report after other federal agencies didn't react to the Israelis' suspicious behavior. The Post, however, also quoted a DEA spokesman who acknowledged that the large number of incident reports had been combined into a draft memo. As with the Planet's inquiry, the DEA spokesman wouldn't confirm for the Post whether the memo was the 60-page document. The validity of the document is attested to in at least one official mention. The Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, in a March 2001 summary, reported on "suspicious visitors to federal facilities," citing the curious behavior of the Israeli art students. Predictably, Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Reguev derided the Intelligence Online report as "nonsense."
And, pro-Israeli apologists such as anti-Arab ideologue Daniel Pipes quickly took the field with strident polemics. Pipes, who makes no claim of having seen the 60-page document, nonetheless claimed in a March 11 column that the story was a "dangerous falsehood" and that "U.S. journalists found not a shred of evidence to support" it.
The fact that reporters were beginning to piece together real shreds was blithely ignored by Pipes.
Israel in the past has belligerently denied wrongdoing until long after the truth was obvious. Israel claimed Jonathan Pollard -- a super spy who did horrendous, deadly damage to the United States until arrested in 1985 -- wasn't an agent. And, Israel has stubbornly contended its 1967 attack on the USS Liberty, in which 35 American sailors were slaughtered, was an accident -- a lie exposed in recent reports including one last fall on the History Channel. A recent authoritative book, Body of Secrets, by James Bamford, concludes that National Security Agency officials "were virtually unanimous in their belief that the attack was deliberate."
With the purported art students, it's likely that denial will reach screeching levels. The Bush administration would find it difficult to explain why it either ignored or discounted such a large espionage operation.
This article was originally published by the Tampa Bay Weekly Planet. Excerpts from the 60-page field reports document obtained by the Weekly Planet can be viewed at http://www.weeklyplanet.com/2002-03-20/news_feature.html.
John F. Sugg, former editor of the Weekly Planet, is now senior editor of the Planet's sister paper in Atlanta, Creative Loafing. He can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.