Fishwrapper - The spies who came in from the art sale

Some reporters have said what U.S. and Israeli officials don’t want to hear

Good advice for journalists is to take note of where the rest of your colleagues are staring, then turn 180 degrees and see what your pals have missed. Often it’s a story. Sometimes a scary one.

A major international espionage saga has many of its roots right here in Atlanta. Incredibly, you haven’t read about it in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution even though that paper’s Washington bureau last week reported the seething scandal.

It’s a touchy subject, to be sure, because it isn’t Saddam, Fidel, Osama or even what passes nowadays for the KGB spying on America — but our “friend” in the war against “evil,” Israel.

In an era where CNN CEO Walter Issacson says it would be “perverse” to televise Afghan babies killed by U.S. bombs, it’s not surprising some stories go unnoticed by a press that embraces “patriotism” by ignoring sacred cows.

One of those cattle is what’s happening in Israel and Palestine. Reporters know that to criticize Israel — to point out, for example, that wanton killing of innocents is equally devilish whether committed by Ariel Sharon’s soldiers flying U.S.-made helicopters, or by a Hamas suicide bomber who pushes the button — is to risk being called an anti-Semite.

Even with that background, however, it’s a little hard to understand the media’s avoidance of the spy story I’m going to tell you.

In 1999, word began spreading among intelligence agencies about bands of Israeli “students” doing veeeerrrrry strange things, such as popping up around federal buildings and military establishments marketing artwork.

According to intelligence sources, low-level alerts began being flashed around to offices of the FBI, DEA, federal prosecutors and others. By March 2001, counterintelligence officials had issued a bulletin to be on the watch for Israelis masquerading as “art students.”

At the same time, American intelligence services were increasingly worried by the dominance of many highly sensitive areas of telecommunications by Israeli companies. Comverse Infosys (now called Verint) provides U.S. lawmen with computer equipment for wiretapping. Speculation is that “catch gates” in the system allowed listeners to be listened to. Other software called Amdocs provided extensive records of virtually all calls placed by the 25 largest U.S. telephone companies.

Often the Israeli “students” sold their artwork on street locations near federal buildings. In one incident in Atlanta, they showed up outside an unlisted FBI office and began taking photos, according to sources. Agents collared them and sent them on their way.

Also in our town, a DEA agent recalled seeing the “students” selling art around his offices. Later, when he spied the same artwork (Chinese made, as it turned out) at the Mall of Georgia, he became suspicious. The DEA is the lead U.S. agency in monitoring money laundering — which would explain a spy’s interest.

Similarly, a former federal prosecutor was visited at his home by the Israeli “art salesmen” — and, according to sources, concluded that, wow, this was exactly what the alerts had been about.

Then came Sept. 11. While America was mesmerized by the “War on Terrorism,” the media went out to a four-martini lunch when it came to skeptical reporting.

With a few commendable exceptions. One of those is Carl Cameron, a gutsy reporter for Fox News. On Dec. 12, Cameron broke the blockbuster spy story. He said at the time: “Since Sept. 11, more than 60 Israelis have been arrested or detained, either under the new PATRIOT anti-terrorism law, or for immigration violations. A handful of active Israeli military were among those detained, according to investigators, who say some of the detainees also failed polygraph questions when asked about alleged surveillance activities against and in the United States.”

That was enough of a gut-kick. Then Cameron threw this incendiary bomb: “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 also reported the Israeli “students” “targeted and penetrated” U.S. military bases.

In the rest of the world — Europe, Arab countries and Israel, especially — the story made headlines. Even the official Chinese news agency perked up. Not in our well-defended (against disturbing news) homeland, however.

Cameron, in an interview, said he doesn’t believe the conspiracy theories about why the story was ignored here. An honest scribe, he points to a shortcoming in his own work — one hammered on by Israeli critics at the time — conceding “there were no [on-the-record] interviews. I didn’t tell other reporters where to find the documents. They couldn’t do instant journalism.”

Others at Fox confirm there was intense pressure on the network by pro-Israeli lobbying groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the misnamed Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA).

“These charges are arrant nonsense unworthy of the usually reliable Fox News,” CAMERA huffed in a Dec. 12 release.

Cameron reported Dec. 13 that federal agents were afraid to criticize Israel. “Investigators within the DEA, INS and FBI have all told Fox News that to pursue or even suggest Israeli spying ... is considered career suicide.”

Cameron told me in similar language that’s what journalists also can face. And, what’s clear is that Fox quickly removed the story from its website. (Fox reposted the story last week after other media finally picked it up.)

The story pretty much fell asleep before Christmas. Then, all hell broke loose in the last 10 days. A French Web-based service, Intelligence Online, obtained the same 61-page June 2001 federal report that Cameron had. The website reported that 120 Israelis had by now been detained or deported by U.S. authorities.

Let me repeat that: 120 potential spies. This isn’t worth press curiosity?

Few papers have given the story significant space. Many, like the AJC, haven’t uttered a peep.

Some of what has seeped out is disturbing. The Oklahoman reported last week that 10 months ago four Israelis peddling artwork (but carrying military IDs) were detained near Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Le Monde in Paris recounted that six intercepted “students” had cell phones purchased by an Israeli vice consul in the United States. Sources told CL that many of the phones had a walkie-talkie feature that was virtually impossible to intercept.

Intelligence Online connected many dots, naming which Israelis were employed by the tech companies, and what military specialties they had (“special forces,” “intelligence officer,” “explosive ordnance/combat engineer,” “electronic intercept operator” — even “son of Israeli army general”).

Many of the apparent operatives had set up shop at addresses only stones’ throws from Arabs in San Diego, Little Rock, Irving, Texas, and in South Florida. Especially in Florida, where 10 of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists lived, the French report bolsters speculation that the Israelis might have gained advanced knowledge of the attack — and not passed on that critical intelligence to the United States.

Bush administration shills were quick to try and spin the story. A Justice Department spokeswoman, Susan Dryden, called the Intelligence Online report an “urban myth,” and other federal flaks trumpeted that no Israeli had been charged with or deported for spying. Of course, in the Great Game, “friendly” spies are seldom embarrassed by being called by their true colors.

Predictably, Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Reguev derided the Intelligence Online report as “nonsense.” Israel in the past has stridently denied wrongdoing until long after the truth was obvious. Israel claimed Jonathan Pollard — a super spy who did horrendous, deadly damage to the United States until arrested in 1985 — wasn’t an agent. And, Israel has stubbornly contended its 1967 attack on the USS Liberty, in which 35 American sailors were killed, was an accident — a lie exposed in recent reports including one that aired last fall on the History Channel. A recent authoritative book, Body of Secrets, by James Bamford, concludes that National Security Agency officials “were virtually unanimous in their belief that the attack was deliberate.”

Following U.S. denials of the recent spy story, Intelligence Online editor Guillaume Dasquie threatened to post the sensitive report online. He commented: “The document we have in our possession details not only the identities of the members of this network, but also their activities in the Israeli army, and even their serial numbers in the intelligence services, their passport numbers and their validity, and their visas and their validity.”

There’s more to this story to come — but you might have to move to Paris to read it (or keep your eyes on CL).

Senior Editor John Sugg can be reached at 404-614-1241.??