ITWASSOOTED: The Israeli "art student" mystery

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Israeli "art student" mystery

The Israeli "art student" mystery
For almost two years, hundreds of young Israelis falsely claiming to be art students haunted federal offices -- in particular, the DEA. No one knows why -- and no one seems to want to find out.

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By Christopher Ketcham

May 7, 2002 | In January 2001, the security branch of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency began to receive a number of peculiar reports from DEA field offices across the country. 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.

As a pattern slowly emerged, the DEA appeared to have been targeted in what it called an "organized intelligence gathering activity." But to what end, and for whom, no one knew.

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."

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. A number of the Israelis resided for a period of time in Hollywood, Fla. -- the small city where Mohammed Atta and three terrorist comrades lived for a time before Sept. 11.

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. (In fact, Salon has established that none of the Israelis were enrolled in the art school most of them claimed to be attending; the other college they claimed to be enrolled in does not exist.) After the Sept. 11 attacks, many more young Israelis -- 60, according to one AP dispatch and other reports -- were detained and deported.more........
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