What Did Israel Know in Advance of the 9/11 Attacks?


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

March 7, 2007

A CounterPunch Special Investigation

What Did Israel Know in Advance of the 9/11 Attacks?


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 (along with Karl Rove, the original 
"outer" of Valerie Plame -- BT Note) 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 suicide pilot on 
United Airlines Flight 175, which smashed into World Trade Center 2, lived in a 
rented apartment at 1818 Jackson Street, some 1,800 feet from Serfaty's South 
21st Avenue apartment.

In fact, an improbable series of coincidences emerges from a close reading of 
the 2001 DEA memo, the 9/11 Commission's staff statements and final report, FBI 
and Justice Department watch lists, hijacker timelines compiled by major media 
and statements by local, state and federal law enforcement personnel. In at 
least six urban centers, suspected Israeli spies and 9/11 hijackers and/or 
al-Qaeda­connected suspects lived and operated near one another, in some cases 
less than half a mile apart, for various periods during 2000­01 in the run-up to
the attacks. In addition to northern New Jersey and Hollywood, Florida, these 
centers included Arlington and Fredericksburg, Virginia; Atlanta; Oklahoma City;
Los Angeles; and San Diego.

Israeli "art students" also lived close to terror suspects in and around Dallas,
Texas. A 25-year-old "art student" named Michael Calmanovic, arrested and 
questioned by Texas-based DEA officers in April 2001, maintained a mail drop at 
3575 North Beltline Road, less than a thousand feet from the 4045 North Beltline
Road apartment of Ahmed Khalefa, an FBI terror suspect. Dallas and its environs,
especially the town of Richardson, Texas, throbbed with "art student" activity. 
Richardson is notable as the home of the Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic 
charity designated as a terrorist funder by the European Union and U.S. 
government in December 2001. Sources in 2002 told The Forward, in a report 
unrelated to the question of the "art students", that "Israeli intelligence 
played a key role in helping the Bush administration to crack down on Islamic 
charities suspected of funneling money to terrorist groups, most notably the 
Richardson, Texas-based Holy Land Foundation, last December [2001]". It's 
plausible that the intelligence prompting the shutdown of the Holy Land 
Foundation came from "art student" spies in the Richardson area.

Others among the "art students" had specific backgrounds in electronic 
surveillance or military intelligence, or were associated with Israeli 
wiretapping and surveillance firms, which prompted further concerns among U.S. 
investigators. DEA agents described Michael Calmanovic, for example, as "a 
recently discharged electronic intercept operator for the Israeli military". 
Lior Baram, questioned near Hollywood, Fla., in January 2001, said he had served
two years in Israeli intelligence "working with classified information". Hanan 
Serfaty, who maintained the Hollywood apartments near Atta and his cohorts, 
served in the Israeli military between the ages of 18 and 21. Serfaty refused to
disclose his activities between the ages of 21 and 24, including his activities 
since arriving in the U.S.A. in 2000. The French daily Le Monde meanwhile 
reported that six "art students" were apparently using cell phones that had been
purchased by a former Israeli vice consul in the U.S.A.

Suspected Israeli spy Tomer Ben Dor, questioned at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 
May 2001, worked for the Israeli wiretapping and electronic eavesdropping 
company NICE Systems Ltd. (NICE Systems' American subsidiary, NICE Systems Inc.,
is located in Rutherford, New Jersey, not far from the East Rutherford site 
where the five Israeli "movers" were arrested on the afternoon of September 11.)
Ben Dor carried in his luggage a print-out of a computer file that referred to 
"DEA Groups". How he acquired information about so-called "DEA Groups" ­- via, 
for example, his own employment with an Israeli wiretapping company -­ was never
determined, according to DEA documents.

"Art student" Michal Gal, arrested by DEA investigators in Irving, Texas, in the
spring of 2001, was released on a $10,000 cash bond posted by Ophir Baer, an 
employee of the Israeli telecommunications software company Amdocs Inc., which 
provides phone-billing technology to clients that include some of the largest 
phone companies in the United States as well as U.S. government agencies. 
Amdocs, whose executive board has been heavily stocked with retired and current 
members of the Israeli government and military, has been investigated at least 
twice in the last decade by U.S. authorities on charges of espionage-related 
leaks of data that the company assured was secure. (The company strenuously 
denies any wrong-doing.)

According to the former CIA counterterrorism officer with knowledge of 
investigations into 9/11-related Israeli espionage, when law enforcement 
officials examined the "art students" phenomenon, they came to the tentative 
conclusion that "the Israelis likely had a huge spy operation in the U.S. and 
that they had succeeded in identifying a number of the hijackers". The German 
daily Die Zeit reached the same conclusion in 2002, reporting that "Mossad 
agents in the U.S. were in all probability surveilling at least four of the 19 
hijackers". The Fox News Channel also reported that U.S. investigators suspected
that Israelis were spying on Muslim militants in the United States. "There is no
indication that the Israelis were involved in the 9/11 attacks, but 
investigators suspect that the Israelis may have gathered intelligence about the
attacks in advance, and not shared it", Fox correspondent Carl Cameron reported 
in a December 2001 series that was the first major exposé of allegations of 
9/11-related Israeli espionage. "A highly placed investigator said there are 
'tie-ins'. But when asked for details, he flatly refused to describe them, 
saying, 'evidence linking these Israelis to 9/11 is classified. I cannot tell 
you about evidence that has been gathered. It's classified information.'"

One element of the allegations has never been clearly understood: if the "art 
students" were indeed spies targeting Muslim extremists that included al-Qaeda, 
why would they also be surveilling DEA agents in such a compromising manner? 
Why, in other words, would foreign spies bumble into federal offices by the 
scores and risk exposing their operation? An explanation is that a number of the
art students were, in fact, young Israelis engaged in a mere art scam and 
unknowingly provided cover for real spies. Investigative journalist John Sugg, 
who as senior editor for the Creative Loafing newspaper chain reported on the 
"art students" in 2002, told me that investigators he spoke to within FBI felt 
the "art student" ring functioned as a wide-ranging cover that was 
counterintuitive in its obviousness. DEA investigators, for example, uncovered 
evidence connecting the Israeli "art students" to known ecstasy trafficking 
operations in New York and Florida. This was, according to Sugg, planted 
information. "The explanation was that when our FBI guys started getting 
interested in these folks [the art students] ­- when they got too close to what 
the real purpose was ­- the Israelis threw in an ecstasy angle", Sugg told me. 
"The argument being that if our guys thought the Israelis were involved in a 
smuggling ring, then they wouldn't see the real purpose of the operation". Sugg,
who is writing a book that explores the tale of the "art students", told me that
several sources within the FBI, and at least one source formerly with Israeli 
intelligence, suggested that "the bumbling aspect of the art student thing was 

When I reported on the matter for Salon.com in 2002, a veteran U.S. intelligence
operative with experience subcontracting both for the CIA and the NSA suggested 
a similar possibility. "It was a noisy operation", the veteran intelligence 
operative said. The operative referred me to the film Victor, Victoria. "It was 
about a woman playing a man playing a woman. Perhaps you should think about this
from that aspect and ask yourself if you wanted to have something that was in 
your face, that didn't make sense, that couldn't possibly be them". The 
intelligence operative added, "Think of it this way: how could the experts think
this could actually be something of any value? Wouldn't they dismiss what they 
were seeing?" U.S. and Israeli officials, dismissing charges of espionage as an 
"urban myth", have publicly claimed that the Israeli "art students" were guilty 
only of working on U.S. soil without proper credentials. The stern denials 
issued by the Justice Department were widely publicized in the Washington Post 
and elsewhere, and the endnote from officialdom and in establishment media by 
the spring of 2002 was that the "art students" had been rounded up and deported 
simply because of harmless visa violations. The FBI, for its part, refused to 
confirm or deny the "art students" espionage story. "Regarding FBI 
investigations into Israeli art students", spokesman Jim Margolin told me, "the 
FBI cannot comment on any of those investigations." As with the New Jersey 
Israelis, the investigation into the Israeli "art students" appears to have been
halted by orders from on high. The veteran CIA/NSA intelligence operative told 
me in 2002 that there was "a great press to discredit the story, discredit the 
connections, prevent [investigators] from going any further. People were told to
stand down. You name the agency, they were told to stand down". The operative 
added, "People who were perceived to be gumshoes on [this matter] suddenly found
themselves hammered from all different directions. The interest from the middle 
bureaucracy was not that there had been a security breach but that someone had 
bothered to investigate the breach. That was where the terror was".

Choking off the press coverage

There was similar pressure brought against the media venues that ventured to 
report out the allegations of 9/11- related Israeli espionage. A former ABC News
employee high up in the network newsroom told me that when ABC News ran its June
2002 exposé on the celebratory New Jersey Israelis, "Enormous pressure was 
brought to bear by pro-Israeli organizations"--and this pressure began months 
before the piece was even close to airing. The source said that ABC News 
colleagues wondered, "how they [the pro-Israel organizations] found out we were 
doing the story. Pro- Israeli people were calling the president of ABC News. 
Barbara Walters was getting bombarded by calls. The story was a hard sell but 
ABC News came through the management insulated [reporters] from the pressure".

The experience of Carl Cameron, chief Washington correspondent at Fox News 
Channel and the first mainstream U.S. reporter to present the allegations of 
Israeli surveillance of the 9/11 hijackers, was perhaps more typical, both in 
its particulars and aftermath. The attack against Cameron and Fox News was 
spearheaded by a pro-Israel lobby group called the Committee for Accuracy in 
Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), which operated in tandem with the two
most highly visible powerhouse Israel lobbyists, the Anti-Defamation League 
(ADL) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (itself currently 
embroiled in a spy scandal connected to the Defense Department and Israeli 
Embassy). "CAMERA pep- pered the shit out of us", Carl Cameron told me in 2002, 
referring to an e-mail bombardment that eventually crashed the Fox News.com 
servers. Cameron himself received 700 pages of almost identical e-mail messages 
from hundreds of citizens (though he suspected these were spam identities). 
CAMERA spokesman Alex Safian later told me that Cameron's upbringing in Iran, 
where his father traveled as an archeologist, had rendered the reporter "very 
sympathetic to the Arab side". Safian added, "I think Cameron, personally, has a
thing about Israel"--coded language implying that Cameron was an anti-Semite. 
Cameron was outraged at the accusation.

According to a source at Fox News Channel, the president of the ADL, Abraham 
Foxman, telephoned executives at Fox News' parent, News Corp., to demand a 
sit-down in the wake of the Cameron reportage. The source said that Foxman told 
the News Corp. executives, "Look, you guys have generally been pretty fair to 
Israel. What are you doing putting this stuff out there? You're killing us". The
Fox News source continued, "As good old boys will do over coffee in Manhattan, 
it was like, well, what can we do about this? Finally, Fox News said, 'Stop the 
e-mailing. Stop slamming us. Stop being in our face, and we'll stop being in 
your face--by way of taking our story down off the web. We will not retract it; 
we will not disavow it; we stand by it. But we will at least take it off the 
web.'" Following this meeting, within four days of the posting of Cameron's 
series on Fox News.com, the transcripts disappeared, replaced by the message, 
"This story no longer exists".

What did Mossad know and tell the U.S.?

Whether or not Israeli spies had detailed foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, the
Israeli authorities knew enough to warn the U.S. government in the summer of 
2001 that an attack was on the horizon. The British Sunday Telegraph reported on
September 16, 2001, that two senior agents with the Mossad were dispatched to 
Washington in August 2001 "to alert the CIA and FBI to the existence of a cell 
of as many as 200 terrorists said to be preparing a big operation". The 
Telegraph quoted a "senior Israeli security official" as saying the Mossad 
experts had "no specific information about what was being planned". Still, the 
official told the Telegraph, the Mossad contacts had "linked the plot to Osama 
bin Laden". Likewise, Die Zeit correspondent Oliver Schröm reported that on 
August 23, 2001, the Mossad "handed its American counterpart a list of names of 
terrorists who were staying in the U.S. and were presumably planning to launch 
an attack in the foreseeable future". Fox News' Carl Cameron, in May 2002, also 
reported warnings by Israel: "Based on its own intelligence, the Israeli 
government provided 'general' information to the United States in the second 
week of August that an al-Qaeda attack was imminent". The U.S. government later 
claimed these warnings were not specific enough to allow any mitigating action 
to be taken. Mossad expert Gordon Thomas, author of Gideon's Spies, says German 
intelligence sources told him that as late as August 2001 Israeli spies in the 
United States had made surveillance contacts with "known supporters of bin Laden
in the U.S.A. It was those surveillance contacts that later raised the question:
how much prior knowledge did Mossad have and at what stage?"

According to Die Zeit, the Mossad did provide the U.S. government with the names
of suspected terrorists Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who would 
eventually hijack the Pentagon plane. It is worth noting that Mihdhar and Hazmi 
were among the hijackers who operated in close proximity to Israeli "art 
students" in Hollywood, Florida, and to the Urban Moving Systems Israelis in 
northern New Jersey. Moreover, Hazmi and at least three "art students" visited 
Oklahoma City on almost the same dates, from April 1 through April 4, 2001. On 
August 24, 2001, a day after the Mossad's briefing, Mihdhar and Hazmi were 
placed by the CIA on a terrorist watch list; additionally, it was only after the
Mossad warning, as reported by Die Zeit, that the CIA, on August 27, informed 
the FBI of the presence of the two terrorists. But by then the cell was already 
in hiding, preparing for attack.

The CIA, along with the 9/11 Commission in its adoption of the CIA story, claims
that Mihdhar and Hazmi were placed on the watch list solely due to the agency's 
own efforts, with no help from Mossad. Their explanation of how the pair came to
be placed on the watch list, however, is far from credible and may have served 
as a cover story to obscure the Mossad briefing [See Ketcham's sidebar story -- 
"The Kuala Lumpur Deceit"]. This brings up the possibility that the CIA may have
known about the existence of the alleged Israeli agents and their mission, but 
sought, naturally, to keep it quiet. A second, more troubling scenario, is that 
the CIA may have subcontracted to Mossad, given that the agency was both 
prohibited by law from conducting intelligence operations on U.S. soil, and 
lacked a pool of competent Arabic-fluent field officers. In such a scenario, the
CIA would either have worked actively with the Israelis or quietly abetted an 
independent operation on U.S. soil. In his 9/11 investigative book, The Looming 
Tower, author Lawrence Wright notes that FBI counterterrorism agents, infuriated
at the CIA's failure to fully share information about Mihdhar and Hazmi, 
speculated that "the agency was shielding Mihdhar and Hazmi because it hoped to 
recruit them". The two al-Qaeda men, Wright notes, "must have seemed like 
attractive opportunities; however, once they entered the United States they were
the province of the FBI..." Wright further observes that the CIA's reticence to 
share its information was due to a fear "that prosecutions resulting from 
specific intelligence might compromise its relationship with foreign services". 
When in the spring of 2002 the scenario of CIA's domestic subcontracting to 
foreign intelligence was posed to the veteran CIA/NSA intelligence operative, 
with whom I spoke extensively, the operative didn't reject it out of hand. The 
operative noted that in recent years the CIA's human intelligence assets, known 
as "humint" ­- spooks on the ground who conduct surveillances, make contacts, 
and infiltrate the enemy ­- had been "eviscerated" in favor of the NSA's far 
less perilous "sigint", or signals intelligence program, the remote interception
of electronic communications. As a result, "U.S. intelligence finds itself going
back to sources that you may not necessarily like to go back to, but are 
required to", the veteran intelligence operative said. "We don't like the fact, 
but our humint structures are gone. Israeli intel's humint is as strong as ever.
If you have an intel gap, those gaps are not closed overnight. It takes years 
and years of diligent work, a high degree of security, talented and dedicated 
people, willing management and a steady hand. It is not a fun business, and it's
certainly not one without its dangers. If you lose that capability, well 
organizations find themselves having to make a pact with the devil. The problem 
[in U.S. intel] is very great".

If such an understanding did exist between CIA and Mossad with regard to 
al-Qaeda's U.S. operatives, the complicity would explain a number of oddities: 
it would explain the CIA's nearly incoherent, and perhaps purposely deceptive, 
reconstruction of events as to how Mihdhar and Hazmi joined the watch list; it 
might even explain the apparent brazenness of the Israeli New Jersey cell 
celebrating on the morning of 9/11 (protected under the CIA wing, they were free
to behave as they pleased). It would also explain the assertion in one of the 
leading Israeli dailies, Yedioth Ahronoth, that in the months prior to 9/11, 
when the Israeli "art students" were being identified and rounded up, the CIA 
"actively promoted their expulsion". The implication in the Yedioth Ahronoth 
article was that the CIA was simply being careless, not trying to spirit the 
Israelis safely out of the country. At this point we cannot be certain.

Israeli spying against the U.S. is of course hotly denied by both governments. 
In 2002, responding to my own questions about the "art students", Israeli 
embassy spokesman Mark Regev issued a blanket denial. "Israel does not spy on 
the United States", Regev told me. The pronouncements from officialdom are 
strictly pro forma, as it is no secret that spying by Israel on the United 
States has been wide-ranging and unabashed. A 1996 General Accounting Office 
report, for example, found that Israel "conducts the most aggressive espionage 
operation against the United States of any U.S. ally". More recently, a former 
intelligence official told the Los Angeles Times in 2004 that "[t]here is a 
huge, aggressive, ongoing set of Israeli activities directed against the United 
States". It is also routine that Israeli spying is ignored or downplayed by the 
U.S. government (the case of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, sentenced to life 
in prison in 1986, is a dramatic exception). According to the American Prospect,
over the last 20 years at least six sealed indictments have been issued against 
individuals allegedly spying "on Israel's behalf", but the cases were resolved 
"through diplomatic and intelligence channels" rather than a public airing in 
the courts. Career Justice Department and intelligence officials who track 
Israeli espionage told the Prospect of "long-standing frustration among 
investigators and prosecutors who feel that cases that could have been made 
successfully against Israeli spies were never brought to trial, or that the 
investigations were shut down prematurely".

The Questions That Await Answers

Remarkably, the Urban Moving Systems Israelis, when interrogated by the FBI, 
explained their motives for "celebration" on the New Jersey waterfront a 
celebration that consisted of cheering, smiling, shooting film with still and 
video cameras and, according to the FBI, "high-fiving" ­- in the Machiavellian 
light of geopolitics. "Their explanation of why they were happy", FBI spokesman 
Margolin told me, "was that the United States would now have to commit itself to
fighting [Middle East] terrorism, that Americans would have an understanding and
empathy for Israel's circumstances, and that the attacks were ultimately a good 
thing for Israel". When reporters on the morning of 9/11 asked former Israeli 
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the effect the attacks would have on 
Israeli- American relations, he responded with a similar gut analysis: "It's 
very good", he remarked. Then he amended the statement: "Well, not very good, 
but it will generate immediate sympathy [for Israel from Americans]".

What is perhaps most damning is that the Israelis' celebration on the New Jersey
waterfront occurred in the first sixteen minutes after the initial crash, when 
no one was aware this was a terrorist attack. In other words, from the time the 
first plane hit the north tower, at 8:46 a.m., to the time the second plane hit 
the south tower, at 9:02 a.m., the overwhelming assumption of news outlets and 
government officials was that the plane's impact was simply a terrible accident.
It was only after the second plane hit that suspicions were aroused. Yet if the 
men were cheering for political reasons, as they reportedly told the FBI, they 
obviously believed they were witnessing a terrorist act, and not an accident.

After returning safely to Israel in the late autumn of 2001, three of the five 
New Jersey Israelis spoke on a national talk show that winter. Oded Ellner, who 
on the afternoon of September 11 had, like his compatriots, protested to 
arresting officer Sgt. Dennis Rivelli that "we're Israeli", admitted to the 
interviewer: "We are coming from a country that experiences terror daily. Our 
purpose was to document the event". By his own admission, then, Ellner stood on 
the New Jersey waterfront documenting with film and video a terrorist act before
anyone knew it was a terrorist act.

One obvious question among many comes to mind: If these men were trained as 
professional spies, why did they exhibit such outright oafishness at the moment 
of truth on the waterfront? The ABC network source close to the 20/20 report 
noted one of the more disturbing explanations proffered by counterintelligence 
investigators at the FBI: "The Israelis felt that in some way their intelligence
had worked out ­- i.e., they were celebrating their own acumen and ability as 
intelligence agents".

The questions abound: Did the Urban Moving Systems Israelis, ready to "document 
the event", arrive at the waterfront before the first plane came in from the 
north? And if they arrived right after, why did they believe it was a terrorist 
attack? What about the strange tale of the "art students"? Could they have been 
mere hustlers, as they claimed, who ended up repeatedly crossing paths with 
federal agents and living next door to most of the 9/11 hijackers by 
coincidence? Did the Israeli authorities find out more about the impending 
attacks than they shared with their U.S. counterparts? Or did the Israeli spies 
on the ground only intercept vague chatter that, in their view, did not warrant 
breaking cover to share the information? On the other hand, did the U.S. 
government receive more advance information about the attacks from Israeli 
authorities than it is willing to admit? What about the 9/11 Commission's 
eliding of reported Israeli warnings that may have led to the watch- listing of 
Mihdhar and Hazmi? Were the Israeli warnings purposely washed from the 
historical record? Did the CIA know more about pre-9/11 Israeli spying than it 
has admitted?

The unfortunate fact is that the truth may never be uncovered, not by 
officialdom, and certainly not by a passive press. James Bamford, who in a coup 
of reporting during the 1980s revealed the inner workings of the NSA in The 
Puzzle Palace, points to the "key problem": "The Israelis were all sent out of 
the country", he says. "There's no nexus left. The FBI just can't go knocking on
doors in Israel. They need to work with the State Department. They need letters 
rogatory, where you ask a government of a foreign country to get answers from 
citizens in that country". The Israeli government will not likely comply. So any
investigation "is now that much more complicated", says Bamford. He recalls a 
story he produced for ABC News concerning two murder suspects -- U.S. citizens 
­- who fled to Israel and fought extradition for ten years. "The Israelis did 
nothing about it until I went to Israel, knocking on doors, and finally found 
the two suspects. I think it'd be a great idea to go over and knock on their 
doors", says Bamford.

The suspects are gone. The trail is cold. Yet many of the key facts and 
promising leads sit freely on the web, in the archives, safe in the news-morgues
at 20/20 and The Forward and Die Zeit. An investigator close to the matter says 
it reminds him of the Antonioni film "Blow-Up", a movie about a photographer who
discovers the evidence of a covered-up murder hidden before his very eyes in the
frame of an enlarged photograph. It's a mystery that no one appears eager to 

See Also:

<http://www.counterpunch.org/kuala03072007.html> The Kuala Lumpur Deceit: a CIA 
Cover Up by Christopher Ketcham

<http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn03072007.html> Ketcham's Story: Coming in 
From the Cold by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair

Christopher Ketcham is a freelance journalist who has written for Harper's and 
Salon. Many of his writings, including his groundbreaking story on the Israeli 
art students, can be read on his website <http://www.christopherketcham.com/> 
www.christopherketcham.com. He can be reached at: 

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