Sept. 11 riddles remain
(This story published by the Norristown, PA, Times New Herald website has dropped off the Internet Archive. Sometimes these stories become accessible again, but in the meantime, I'm reposting here for posterity. -rep.)
Sept. 11 riddles remain
By: KEITH PHUCAS, Times Herald Staff
NORRISTOWN - Accusations that the 9/11 Commission ignored information about a defense intelligence operation "Able Danger" that targeted al-Qaida in 2000 has renewed criticism that the panel may have passed up other intriguing leads gathered in the months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
A memorandum sent to the 9/11 Commission, and Senate and House intelligence committees in September 2004, suggests that young Israelis who canvassed dozens of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) offices in 2000 and 2001 trying to sell paintings to federal workers, may have been spying not only on the DEA, but also on Arab extremists in the United States - including the Sept. 11 hijackers who were living in Florida and New Jersey.
The Israeli "art student" story, which first surfaced in 2001 in news reports, has yet to be explained by U.S. authorities. Curiously, the 9/11 Commission did not venture to connect the myriad of dots to solve the mystery.
Did you get the memo?
The 53-page memorandum, compiled by former corporate attorney Gerald Shea cites a lengthy report from the DEA's Office of Security that describe groups of Israeli men and women. Nearly all were in their 20s, who peddled artwork at DEA, and other federal government offices, in the months leading up to the terrorist attacks.
Many reports describe incidents of government employees spotting individuals in office hallways or elevators carrying large art portfolio cases. The art sellers would typically make a pitch to sell paintings, but if they were told that soliciting in government offices was prohibited, some replied that the art wasn't actually for sale but was promoting a future art show, the DEA report said.
During the first five months of 2001, according to Shea's memorandum, the "Israeli DEA Groups" visited a total of 57 DEA locations - 28 offices and 29 private residences.
Other individuals that Shea calls the "Israeli New Jersey Group" were based in Bergen and Hudson counties, in New Jersey, according to the well-annotated memorandum that also cites the 9/11 Commission report, the 2002 congressional intelligence committees' joint inquiry into the terrorist attacks, newspaper and magazine reports, Fox News telecasts, 9/11 hijacker timelines, FBI suspect lists, and an East Rutherford (New Jersey) Police Department report.
According to the June 2001 DEA report headed "Suspicious Activities Involving Israeli Art Students at DEA Facilities" the art-selling activities occurred in many U.S. cities, with "most activity reported in the state of Florida."
The individuals peddling art work, many of whom claimed they were art students, were observed at DEA division offices in Montgomery, Ala. Dallas and Houston; Los Angeles and San Diego; Oklahoma City; Orlando, Tampa and Fort Myers and Miami, Fla., among other cities. The art sellers also showed up on the doorsteps of federal workers.
Dozens of the more than 100 Israelis were stopped and questioned by DEA agents, and other federal government authorities. The individuals were vague about why they were in the U.S. or what their purpose was for being here. Dozens were arrested for visa violations and deported, according to the memorandum.
Many in the groups had served in the military, which is compulsory for Israeli citizens, and group leaders had been in intelligence and electronic communications units. With such expertise, it strikes many as odd that the Israelis would be hawking inexpensive artwork. In the report, the DEA concluded that the agency was being spied on by the Israelis.
In 2001, a Fox News report by Carl Cameron laid out the Israeli spy scenario, however, the story was short-lived, and Shea was told by a representative at the news organization that there was outside pressure to kill the story.
Several publications, including The Forward, Insight and the French newspaper, Le Monde, picked up the story in 2002. All indicated there was extreme reluctance by U.S. officials - and practically anyone else - to discuss the matter publicly.
The DEA did acknowledged the internal reports describing the Israelis activity at the agency's offices to The Times Herald, but refused to elaborate.
"There were some reporting documents that were referred to the appropriate authorities," said DEA spokeswoman, Rogene Waite. "Nothing came out of it."
Waite declined to identify specifically what federal agencies or individuals were the "appropriate authorities."
Hot on the trail?
One of the memorandum's most fascinating revelations puts the Israelis and would-be 9/11 hijackers in close proximity geographically in the months prior to the terrorist attacks in Florida, Oklahoma and New Jersey.
As the DEA was compiling its report in June 2001, 15 or the 19 plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks were living in the Hollywood, Fla., area, according to Shea's research, and more than 30 of the young Israelis also lived in the same area during this time period.
According to the memorandum, some of the Israelis and hijackers in Florida lived "within hundreds of yards" of each other. Besides Hollywood, the Israelis and hijacker lived within about five miles of one another in other southern Florida towns, including Coral Springs, Plantation, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Coral Gables.
Hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al Shehhi, who entered the U.S. in 2000, attended several flight schools in Florida, but also toured the Airman Flight Training School in Norman, Okla., according to "Annotated Timeline of the 9/11 Hijackers for Researchers (www.freerepublic.com).
In February 2001, suspected terrorist, Zacarias Moussaoui, moved to Norman, Okla., to begin flight lessons at Airman Flight Training School. Five other suspected terrorists who appeared on the May 2002 FBI Suspect List also lived in Norman, according to the memorandum.
On April 1, 2001, Nawaq al Hazmi, a 9/11 hijacker aboard American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon, got a ticket for speeding on Interstate 40 west of Oklahoma City, according to the 9/11 hijacker timeline. He was believed to be on his way to meet Moussaoui.
The Israeli DEA Groups were also active in Oklahoma City during the spring of 2001. On April 30, 2001, Tinker Air Force Base, in Oklahoma City, issued an alert about "a possible intelligence collection effort being conducted by Israeli art students," according to the DEA report.
Three Israelis questioned by U.S. authorities in St. Louis on April 4, 2001, had visited Oklahoma City a few days before, according to the DEA report.
Many of the Israelis questioned about their suspicious activities had Florida driver's licenses and addresses in south Florida.
Yet Shea found only two references to Hollywood, Fla., in the 9/11 report, and those were in footnotes. The conspicuous absence of any discussion in the commission's report of a possible links between the Israelis and Sept. 11 plotters is odd, he said.
"It seems like they were clearly trying to avoid the issue," Shea said.
He concludes that some in the Israeli group were indeed spying on the terrorists while they were in Florida. If the commission had been aware of the surveillance by the Israelis, he said, the revelations should have come to light during the panel's inquiry.
Did the 9/11 panel, which included 80 staffers, gloss over this information because it was too controversial or perhaps classified? The jury is still out, Shea said.
"I would have focused on the fact that the hijackers were based in Hollywood," he said. "Whether they were downplaying the Israelis would be a matter for a future public inquiry."
On Sept. 11, 2001, five Israeli men in a van marked "Urban Moving Systems," were detained after East Rutherford police were told that the men were "smiling and exchanging high-fives" when they saw the Trade Center burning across the Hudson River, according to the memorandum.
An arresting officer, Sgt. Dennis Rivelli, now a lieutenant with the East Rutherford police, reported that one of the suspects said "We're Israelis" when police stopped them on Sept. 11.
According to the memorandum, the men - Sivan Kurzberg, Paul Kurzberg, Yaron Shmuel, Oded Ellner and Omer Marmari - were questioned by the FBI and detained for several weeks. Eventually, they were deported on visa violations.
According to Shea, Dominik Suter, listed as the owner of the "Urban Moving Systems," was questioned by the FBI, but then fled the country. Eventually, Suter's name appeared on the May 2002 FBI Suspect List, along with the Sept. 11 hijackers and other suspected Muslim extremists.
In October 2001, the Plymouth Township Police Department detained three Israelis - Moshe Elmakias, Ron Katar and Ayelet Reisler - who were suspected of dumping furniture behind Pizzeria Uno on Ridge Pike, according to an Oct. 17, 2001, article in The Times Herald.
The suspects were riding in a tractor-trailer truck bearing the name "Moving Systems Incorporated." The vehicle was loaded with furniture. The company name is oddly similar to one used by the New Jersey men arrested on Sept. 11. Police also discovered a videotape that had footage of the Sears Tower in Chicago.
The FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service took custody of Elmakias and Katar and they were taken to a federal facility, the article reported.
There are still many troubling unanswered questions about the Sept. 11 plot, Shea said, and the American people should demand that Congress get to the truth about the suspicious activities of the Israeli groups.
"We're talking about the security of the United States, and people should be concerned about it," he said.
©The Times Herald 2005