Intelligence Agents or Art Students? the DEA and Justice Department Believe There Was Something Sinister Behind Unusual Visits Israeli `Art Students' Paid to Employees of Law-Enforcement Agencies. (Investigative Report)

Article excerpt

From Paris to Washington to New York City and back again, a story has reverberated about an alleged Israeli spy ring that was busted in the United States last year. Intelligence Online, a well-respected Internet news service broke the explosive story, which quickly was picked up by Le Monde in France, then the Associated Press (AP) in Washington and other news outlets.

These stories all seem to track a similar report last December by Carl Cameron of Fox News outlining concerns among U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence agencies that an Israeli-based network of operatives was spying or otherwise engaged in information-gathering activities within the United States. All the news agencies said or mentioned that many of those under investigation subsequently were deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for visa violations. Most also quoted named and unnamed Israeli spokesmen as saying that Israel doesn't spy on the United States and that whatever these Israeli citizens were doing was not criminal even if inappropriate and in violation of their visas.

INSIGHT already was investigating such allegations and had obtained numerous documents for what from the beginning was planned as an investigative report. Amid the breaking news of the so-called "Israeli spy-ring bust," it is time to clear the air on a variety of real and half-baked charges reported by others. Specifically:

* The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began an "unprecedented" internal-security investigation early last spring following reports from field agents and regional offices involving suspicious activities by Israeli citizens engaged in the sale of artwork and paintings throughout the Southeast, South and Southwest, including Florida, Texas and California.

* The "Israeli art students" -- so dubbed because that's how they described themselves to various law-enforcement officials when confronted -- were both male and female and, as appropriate to their ages and required under Israeli law, served that nation's military.

* These alleged students traveled in "organized" teams of eight to 10 people, with each group having a team leader.

* Reports of Israeli art students calling on DEA employees began at least as early as January 2000 and continued through at least June 2001.

* These unusual visits at both the homes and offices of DEA officers were expanded to include employees of "several other law-enforcement and Department of Defense agencies."

* "The number of reported incidents has declined" since spring 2001, though the "geographic spread of the incidents has increased to Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Los Angeles."

* The stories offered by the Israeli art students "are remarkable in their consistency" insofar as they state they either are from the University of Jerusalem or the Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem."

* Despite the students' claims that they had themselves produced the artwork or paintings they were offering for sale, "information has been received which indicates the art is actually produced in China."

All this is contained in official DEA documents obtained by INSIght, including one produced in early June 2001. These represent an extraordinary compilation by DEA's Office of Security Programs chronicling not only contacts of DEA personnel at home or at their offices, but also similar incidents involving employees of other agencies and the military.

"It is a very alarming set of documents," says one high-ranking federal law-enforcement official when told of the cache of materials collected by INSIGHT. "This shows how serious DEA and Justice consider this activity."

Indeed, says a senior Justice Department official briefed on an ongoing multiagency task force, "We think there is something quite sinister here but are unable at this time to put our finger on it." But, said another federal law-enforcement source: "The higher-ups don't want to deal with this and neither does the FBI because it involves Israel. …