What Did Israel Know in Advance of the 9/11 Attacks?Thu Mar 8, 2007 16:10What Did Israel Know in Advance of the 9/11 Attacks?
By CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM
On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, an FBI bulletin known as a BOLO - "be on lookout" -- was issued with regard to three suspicious men who that morning were seen leaving the New Jersey waterfront minutes after the first plane hit World Trade Center 1. Law enforcement officers across the New York-New Jersey area were warned in the radio dispatch to watch for a "vehicle possibly related to New York terrorist attack":
White, 2000 Chevrolet van with 'Urban Moving Systems' sign on back seen at Liberty State Park, Jersey City, NJ, at the time of first impact of jetliner into World Trade Center Three individuals with van were seen celebrating after initial impact and subsequent explosion. FBI Newark Field Office requests that, if the van is located, hold for prints and detain individuals.
At 3:56 p.m., twenty-five minutes after the issuance of the FBI BOLO, officers with the East Rutherford Police Department stopped the commercial moving van through a trace on the plates. According to the police report, Officer Scott DeCarlo and Sgt. Dennis Rivelli approached the stopped van, demanding that the driver exit the vehicle. The driver, 23-year-old Sivan Kurzberg, refused and "was asked several more times [but] appeared to be fumbling with a black leather fanny pouch type of bag". With guns drawn, the police then "physically removed" Kurzberg, while four other men - two more men had apparently joined the group since the morning - were also removed from the van, handcuffed, placed on the grass median and read their Miranda rights.
They had not been told the reasons for their arrest. Yet, according to DeCarlo's report, "this officer was told without question by the driver [Sivan Kurzberg],'We are Israeli. We are not your problem.Your problems are our problems. The Palestinians are the problem.'" Another of the five Israelis, again without prompting, told Officer DeCarlo - falsely - that "we were on the West Side Highway in New York City during the incident". From inside the vehicle the officers, who were quickly joined by agents from the FBI, retrieved multiple passports and $4,700 in cash stuffed in a sock. According to New Jersey's Bergen Record, which on September 12 reported the arrest of the five Israelis, an investigator high up in the Bergen County law enforcement hierarchy stated that officers had also discovered in the vehicle "maps of the city with certain places highlighted. It looked like they're hooked in with this", the source told the Record, referring to the 9/11 attacks. "It looked like they knew what was going to happen when they were at Liberty State Park."
The five men were indeed Israeli citizens. They claimed to be in the country working as movers for Urban Moving Systems Inc., which maintained a warehouse and office in Weehawken, New Jersey. They were held for 71 days in a federal detention center in Brooklyn, New York, during which time they were repeatedly interrogated by FBI and CIA counterterrorism teams, who referred to the men as the "high-fivers" for their celebratory behavior on the New Jersey waterfront. Some were placed in solitary confinement for at least forty days; some were given as many as seven liedetector tests. One of the Israelis, Paul Kurzberg, brother of Sivan, refused to take a lie-detector test for ten weeks. Then he failed it.
Meanwhile, two days after the men were picked up, the owner of Urban Moving Systems, Dominik Suter, a 31- year-old Israeli national, abandoned his business and fled the United States for Israel. Suter's departure was abrupt, leaving behind coffee cups, sandwiches, cell phones and computers strewn on office tables and thousands of dollars of goods in storage. Suter was later placed on the same FBI suspect list as 9/11 lead hijacker Mohammed Atta and other hijackers and suspected al-Qaeda sympathizers, suggesting that U.S. authorities felt Suter may have known something about the attacks. The suspicion, as the investigation unfolded, was that the men working for Urban Moving Systems were spies. Who exactly was handling them, and who or what they were targeting, was as yet uncertain.
It was New York's venerable Jewish weekly The Forward that broke this story in the spring of 2002, after months of footwork. The Forward reported that the FBI had finally concluded that at least two of the men were agents working for the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, and that Urban Moving Systems, the ostensible employer of the five Israelis, was a front operation. Two former CIA officers confirmed this to me, noting that movers' vans are a common intelligence cover. The Forward also noted that the Israeli government itself admitted that the men were spies. A "former high-ranking American intelligence official", who said he was "regularly briefed on the investigation by two separate law enforcement officials", told reporter Marc Perelman that after American authorities confronted Jerusalem at the end of 2001, the Israeli government "acknowledged the operation and apologized for not coordinating it with Washington". Today, Perelman stands by his reporting. I asked him if his sources in the Mossad denied the story. "Nobody stopped talking to me", he said.
In June 2002, ABC News' 20/20 followed up with its own investigation into the matter, coming to the same conclusion as The Forward. Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of operations for counterterrorism with the CIA, told 20/20 that some of the names of the five men appeared as hits in searches of an FBI national intelligence database. Cannistraro told me that the question that most troubled FBI agents in the weeks and months after 9/11 was whether the Israelis had arrived at the site of their "celebration" with foreknowledge of the attack to come. From the beginning, "the FBI investigation operated on the premise that the Israelis had foreknowledge", according to Cannistraro. A second former CIA counterterrorism officer who closely followed the case, but who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me that investigators were pursuing two theories. "One story was that [the Israelis] appeared at Liberty State Park very quickly after the first plane hit. The other was that they were at the park location already". Either way, investigators wanted to know exactly what the men were expecting when they got there.
Before such issues had been fully explored, however, the investigation was shut down. Following what ABC News reported were "high-level negotiations between Israeli and U.S. government officials", a settlement was reached in the case of the five Urban Moving Systems suspects. Intense political pressure apparently had been brought to bear. The reputable Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported that by the last week of October 2001, some six weeks after the men had been detained, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and two unidentified "prominent New York congressmen" were lobbying heavily for their release. According to a source at ABC News close to the 20/20 report, high-profile criminal lawyer Alan Dershowitz also stepped in as a negotiator on behalf of the men to smooth out differences with the U.S. government. (Dershowitz declined to comment for this article.) And so, at the end of November 2001, for reasons that only noted they had been working in the country illegally as movers, in violation of their visas, the men were flown home to Israel.
Today, the crucial questions raised by this matter remain unanswered. There is sufficient reason - from news reports, statements by former intelligence officials, an array of circumstantial evidence, and the reported acknowledgment by the Israeli government - to believe that in the months before 9/11, Israel was running an active spy network inside the United States, with Muslim extremists as the target. Given Israel's concerns about Islamic terrorism as well as its long history of spying on U.S. soil, this does not come entirely as a shock. What's incendiary is the idea - supported, though not proven, by several pieces of evidence - that the Israelis did learn something about 9/11 in advance but failed to share all of what they knew with American officials. The questions are disturbing enough to warrant a Congressional investigation.
Yet none of this information found its way into Congress's joint committee report on the attacks, and it was not even tangentially referenced in the nearly 600 pages of the 9/11 Commission's final report. Nor would a single major media outlet track the revelations of The Forward and ABC News to investigate further. "There weren't even stories saying it was bullshit", says The Forward's Perelman. "Honestly, I was surprised". Instead, the story disappeared into the welter of anti-Israel 9/11 conspiracy theories.
It's no small boon to the U.S. government that the story of 9/11-related Israeli espionage has been thus relegated: the story doesn't fit in the clean lines of the official narrative of the attacks. It brings up concerns not only about Israel's obligation not to spy inside the borders of the United States, its major benefactor, but about its possible failure to have provided the U.S. adequate warning of an impending devastating attack on American soil. Furthermore, the available evidence undermines the carefully cultivated image of sanctity that defines the U.S.- Israel relationship. These are all factors that help explain the story's disappearance, and they are compelling reasons to revisit it now.
Torpedoing the FBI Probe
All five future hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77, which rammed the Pentagon, maintained addresses or were active within a six-mile radius of towns associated with the Israelis employed at Urban Moving Systems. Hudson and Bergen counties, the areas where the Israelis were allegedly conducting surveillance, were a central staging ground for the hijackers of Flight 77 and their fellow al-Qaeda operatives. Mohammed Atta maintained a mail-drop address and visited friends in northern New Jersey; his contacts there included Hani Hanjour, the suicide pilot for Flight 77, and Majed Moqed, one of the strongmen who backed Hanjour in the seizing of the plane. Could the Israelis, with or without knowledge of the terrorists' plans, have been tracking the men who were soon to hijack Flight 77?
In public statements, both the Israeli government and the FBI have denied that the Urban Moving Systems men were involved in an intelligence operation in the United States. "No evidence recovered suggested any of these Israelis had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attack, and these Israelis are not suspected of working for Mossad", FBI spokesman Jim Margolin told me. (The Israeli embassy did not respond to questions for this article.) According to the source at ABC News, FBI investigators chafed at the denials from their higher-ups. "There is a lot of frustration inside the bureau about this case", the source told me. "They feel the higher echelons torpedoed the investigation into the Israeli New Jersey cell. Leads were not fully investigated". Among those lost leads was the figure of Dominik Suter, whom the U.S. authorities apparently never attempted to contact. Intelligence expert and author James Bamford told me there was similar frustration within the CIA: "People I've talked to at the CIA were outraged at what was going on. They thought it was outrageous that there hadn't been a real investigation, that the facts were hanging out there without any conclusion."
However, what was "absolutely certain", according to Vincent Cannistraro, was that the five Israelis formed part of a surveillance network in the New York- New Jersey area. The network's purpose was to track radical Islamic extremists and/or supporters of militant Palestinian groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The former CIA counterterrorism officer who spoke anonymously told me that FBI investigators determined that the suspect Israelis were serving as Arabic-speaking linguists "running technical operations" in northern New Jersey's extensive Muslim communities. The former CIA officer said the operations included taps on telephones, placement of microphones in rooms and mobile surveillance. The source at ABC News agreed: "Our conclusion was that they were Arab linguists involved in monitoring operations, i.e., electronic surveillance. People at FBI concur with this". The ABC News source added, "What we heard was that the Israelis may have picked up chatter that something was going to happen on the morning of 9/11".
The former CIA counterterrorism officer told me: "There was no question but that [the order to close down the investigation] came from the White House. It was immediately assumed at CIA headquarters that this basically was going to be a cover-up so that the Israelis would not be implicated in any way in 9/11. Bear in mind that this was a political issue, not a law enforcement or intelligence issue. If somebody says we don't want the Israelis implicated in this - we know that they've been spying the hell out of us, we know that they possibly had information in advance of the attacks, but this would be a political nightmare to deal with."
The Israeli "Art Student" Spies
There is a second piece of evidence that suggests Israeli operatives were spying on al-Qaeda in the United States. It is writ in the peculiar tale of the Israeli "art students", detailed by this reporter for Salon.com in 2002, following the leaking of an internal memo circulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration's Office of Security Programs. The June 2001 memo, issued three months before the 9/11 attacks, reported that more than 120 young Israeli citizens, posing as art students and peddling cheap paintings, had been repeatedly - and seemingly inexplicably - attempting to penetrate DEA offices and other law enforcement and Defense Department offices across the country. The DEA report stated that the Israelis may have been engaged in "an organized intelligence gathering activity", but to what end, U.S. investigators, in June 2001, could not determine. The memo briefly floated the possibility that the Israelis were engaged in trafficking the drug ecstasy. According to the memo, "the most activity [was] reported in the state of Florida" during the first half of 2001, where the town of Hollywood appeared to be "a central point for these individuals with several having addresses in this area".
In retrospect, the fact that a large number of "art students" operated out of Hollywood is intriguing, to say the least. During 2001, the city, just north of Miami, was a hotbed of al-Qaeda activity and served as one of the chief staging grounds for the hijacking of the World Trade Center planes and the Pennsylvania plane; it was home to fifteen of the nineteen future hijackers, nine in Hollywood and six in the surrounding area. Among the 120 suspected Israeli spies posing as art students, more than thirty lived in the Hollywood area, ten in Hollywood proper. As noted in the DEA report, many of these young men and women had training as intelligence and electronic intercept officers in the Israeli military - training and experience far beyond the compulsory service mandated by Israeli law. Their "traveling in the U.S. selling art seem[ed] not to fit their background", according to the DEA report.
One "art student" was a former Israeli military intelligence officer named Hanan Serfaty, who rented two Hollywood apartments close to the mail drop and apartment of Mohammed Atta and four other hijackers. Serfaty was moving large amounts of cash: he carried bank slips showing more than $100,000 deposited from December 2000 through the first quarter of 2001; other bank slips showed withdrawals for about $80,000 during the same period. Serfaty's apartments, serving as crash pads for at least two other "art students", were located at 4220 Sheridan Street and 701 South 21st Avenue. Lead hijacker Mohammed Atta's mail drop was at 3389 Sheridan Street--approximately 2,700 feet from Serfaty's Sheridan Street apartment. Both Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, the s
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