THE ISRAELI "ART STUDENT" MYSTERY
By Christopher Ketcham, Salon.com, 5/7/02
HIGHLIGHT: For almost two years, hundreds of young Israelis falsely
claiming to be art students haunted federal offices -- in particular, the
DEA. No one knows why -- and no one seems to want to find out.
In January 2001, the security branch of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency
began to receive a number of peculiar reports from DEA field offices
across the country. According to the reports, young Israelis claiming to
be art students and offering artwork for sale had been attempting to
penetrate DEA offices for over a year. The Israelis had also attempted to
penetrate the offices of other law enforcement and Department of Defense
agencies. Strangest of all, the "students" had visited the homes of
numerous DEA officers and other senior federal officials.
As a pattern slowly emerged, the DEA appeared to have been targeted in
what it called an "organized intelligence gathering activity." But to what
end, and for whom, no one knew.
Reports of the mysterious Israelis with an inexplicable interest in
peddling art to G-men came in from more than 40 U.S. cities and continued
throughout the first six months of 2001. Agents of the DEA, ATF, Air
Force, Secret Service, FBI, and U.S. Marshals Service documented some 130
separate incidents of "art student" encounters. Some of the Israelis were
observed diagramming the inside of federal buildings. Some were found
carrying photographs they had taken of federal agents. One was discovered
with a computer printout in his luggage that referred to "DEA groups."
In some cases, the Israelis visited locations not known to the public --
areas without street addresses, for example, or DEA offices not identified
as such -- leading authorities to suspect that information had been
gathered from prior surveillance or perhaps electronically, from credit
cards and other sources. One Israeli was discovered holding banking
receipts for substantial sums of money, close to $180,000 in withdrawals
and deposits over a two-month period. A number of the Israelis resided for
a period of time in Hollywood, Fla. -- the small city where Mohammed Atta
and three terrorist comrades lived for a time before Sept. 11...
According to one account, some 140 Israeli nationals were detained or
arrested between March 2001 and Sept. 11, 2001. Many of them were
deported. According to the INS, the deportations resulted from violations
of student visas that forbade the Israelis from working in the United
States. (In fact, Salon has established that none of the Israelis were
enrolled in the art school most of them claimed to be attending; the other
college they claimed to be enrolled in does not exist.) After the Sept. 11
attacks, many more young Israelis -- 60, according to one AP dispatch and
other reports -- were detained and deported.
The "art students" followed a predictable modus operandi. They generally
worked in teams, typically consisting of a driver, who was the team
leader, and three or four subordinates. The driver would drop the
"salespeople" off at a given location and return to pick them up some
hours later. The "salespeople" entered offices or approached agents in
their offices or homes. Sometimes they pitched their artwork --
landscapes, abstract works, homemade pins and other items they carried
about in portfolios. At other times, they simply attempted to engage
agents in conversation.
If asked about their studies, they generally said they were from the
Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem or the University of
Jerusalem (which does not exist). They were described as "aggressive" in
their sales pitch and "evasive" when questioned by wary agents. The
females among them were invariably described as "very attractive" --
"blondes in tight shorts or jeans, real lookers," as one DEA agent put it
to Salon. "They were flirty, flipping the hair, looking at you, smiling.
'Hey, how are you? Let me show you this.'
Everything a woman would do if she wanted to get something out of you."
Some agents noted that the "students" made repeated attempts to avoid
facility security personnel by trying to enter federal buildings through
back doors and side entrances. On several occasions, suspicious agents who
had been visited at home observed the Israelis after the "students"
departed and noted that they did not approach any of the neighbors...
On the face of it, this was a blockbuster tale, albeit a bizarre and
cryptic one, full of indeterminate leads and fascinating implications and
ambiguous answers: "Like a good Clancy novel," as one observer put it. Was
it espionage? Drug dealing? An intelligence game? The world's wackiest
Yet the mainstream media has almost entirely ignored the allegations or
accepted official "explanations" that explain nothing. Even before the DEA
memo was leaked, however, some reporters had begun sniffing around the
On Oct. 1 of last year, Texas newswoman Anna Werner, of KHOU-TV in
Houston, told viewers about a "curious pattern of behavior" by people with
"Middle Eastern looks" claiming to be Israeli art students. "Government
guards have found those so-called students," reported Werner, "trying to
get into secure federal facilities in Houston in ways they're not supposed
to -- through back doors and parking garages." Federal agents, she said,
were extremely "concerned."
The "students" had showed up at the DEA's Houston headquarters, at the
Leland Federal Building in Houston, and even the federal prosecutor's
office; they had also appeared to be monitoring the buildings. Guards at
the Earle Cabell Federal Building in Dallas found one "student" wandering
the halls with a floor plan of the site. Sources told Werner that similar
incidents had occurred at sites in New York, Florida, and six other
states, "and even more worrisome, at 36 sensitive Department of Defense
Post-9/11, this should have been the opening thrust in an orgy of
coverage, and the scoop of a lifetime for Werner: Here she'd gotten a
glimpse into a possible espionage ring of massive proportions, possibly of
terrorists scouting new targets for jihad -- and those terrorists were
possibly posing as Israelis. KHOU's conclusions were wrong -- these
weren't Arab terrorists -- but at the time no one knew better. And yet the
story died on the vine. No one followed up.
Just about the same time that KHOU was stabbing in the dark, reporter Carl
Cameron of the Fox News Channel was beginning an investigation into the
mystery of the art students that would ultimately light the way into
altogether different terrain. In a four-part series on Fox's "Special
Report With Brit Hume" that aired in mid-December, Cameron reported that
federal agents were investigating the "art student" phenomenon as a
possible arm of Israeli espionage operations tracking al-Qaida operatives
in the United States.
Yes, you read that right: a spy ring that may have been trailing al-Qaida
members in the weeks and months before Sept. 11 -- a spy ring that
according to Cameron's sources may have known about the preparations for
the Sept. 11 attacks but failed to share this knowledge with U.S.
intelligence. One investigator told Cameron that "evidence linking these
Israelis to 9/11 is classified. I cannot tell you about evidence that has
been gathered. It's classified information."
According to Cameron, some 60 Israeli nationals had been detained in the
anti-terrorism/immigrant sweeps in the weeks after Sept. 11, and at least
140 Israelis identified as "art students" had been detained or arrested in
the prior months. Most of the 60 detained after Sept. 11 had been
deported, Cameron said. "Some of the detainees," reported Cameron, "failed
polygraph questions when asked about alleged surveillance activities
against and in the United States."
Some of them were on active military duty. (Military service is compulsory
for all young Israelis.) Cameron was careful to note that there was "no
indication that the Israelis were involved in the 9/11 attacks" and that
while his reporting had dug up "explosive information," none of it was
necessarily conclusive. Cameron was simply airing the wide-ranging
speculations in an ongoing investigation...
But inside the DEA, the Fox piece reverberated. An internal DEA communique
obtained by Salon indicates that the DEA made careful note of Cameron's
reports; the communique even mentions Fox News by name. Dated Dec. 18,
four days after the final installment in the Fox series, the document
warns of security breaches in DEA telecommunications by unauthorized
"foreign nationals" -- and cites an Israeli-owned firm with which the DEA
contracted for wiretap equipment -- breaches that could have accounted for
the access that the "art students" apparently had to the home addresses of
It wasn't until nearly three months after the Fox reports that the "art
student" enigma resurfaced in newsrooms, this time in Europe. On Feb. 28,
the respected Paris-based espionage newsletter Intelligence Online
reported in detail on what turned out to have been one of Cameron's key
source documents: the 60-page DEA memo. The memo itself, which Salon
obtained in mid-March, went no further than to speculate in the most
general terms that the "nature of the individuals' conduct" suggested some
sort of "organized intelligence gathering activity."
The memo also pointed out that there was some evidence connecting the art
students to a drug ring. "DEA Orlando has developed the first drug nexus
to this group," the memo read. "Telephone numbers obtained from an Israeli
Art Student encountered at the Orlando D.O. District Office have been
linked to several ongoing DEA MDMA (Ecstasy) investigations in Florida,
California, Texas and New York..."
Six of the "students" were apparently carrying cell phones purchased by a
former Israeli vice consul to the United States. According to Le Monde,
two of the "students" had traveled from Hamburg to Miami to visit an FBI
agent in his home, then boarded a flight to Chicago and visited the home
of a Justice Dept. agent, then hopped a direct flight to Toronto -- all in
According to Intelligence Online, more than one-third of the students, who
were spread out in 42 cities, lived in Florida, several in Hollywood and
Fort Lauderdale, Fla. -- one-time home to at least 10 of the 19 Sept. 11
In at least one case, the students lived just a stone's throw from homes
and apartments where the Sept. 11 terrorists resided: In Hollywood,
several students lived at 4220 Sheridan St., just down the block from the
3389 Sheridan St. apartment where terrorist mastermind Mohammed Atta holed
up with three other Sept. 11 plotters. Many of the students, the DEA
report noted, had backgrounds in Israeli military intelligence and/or
electronics surveillance; one was the son of a two-star Israeli general,
and another had served as a bodyguard to the head of the Israeli army...
To someone not familiar with the 60-page DEA memo, or to reporters who
didn't bother to obtain it, the fact that a disgruntled employee leaked a
memo he wrote himself might seem like decisive proof that the whole "art
student" tale was a canard. In reality, the nature of the memo makes its
authorship irrelevant. The memo is a compilation of field reports by
dozens of named agents and officials from DEA offices across America. It
contains the names, passport numbers, addresses, and in some cases the
military ID numbers of the Israelis who were questioned by federal
authorities. Pointing a finger at the author is like blaming a bank
robbery on the desk sergeant who took down the names of the robbers.
Of course, the agent (or agents) who wrote the memo could also have
fabricated or embellished the field reports. That does not seem to have
been the case. Salon contacted more than a half-dozen agents identified in
the memo. One agent said she had been visited six times at her home by
"art students." None of the agents wished to be named, and very few were
willing to speak at length, but all confirmed the veracity of the
Despite such obvious holes in the official story, neither the Post nor any
other mainstream media organization ran follow-up articles. The New York
Times has not yet deemed it worth covering -- in fact, the paper of record
has not written about the art student mystery even once, not even to
pooh-pooh it. One or two minor media players did some braying -- Israel
had been caught spying, etc. ' and the bonko conspiracy fringe had a field
day, but the rest of the media, taking a cue from the big boys, decided it
was a nonstarter: the Post's "debunking" and the Times' silence had
effectively killed the story.
So complete was the silence that by mid-March, Jane's Information Group,
the respected British intelligence and military analysis service, noted:
"It is rather strange that the U.S. media seems to be ignoring what may
well be the most explosive story since the 11 September attacks -- the
alleged break-up of a major Israeli espionage operation in the USA..."
In the case of Israel, there are far stronger reasons to hide any unseemly
cracks in the special relationship. The powerful pro-Israel political
constituencies in Congress; pro-Israel lobbies; the Bush administration's
strong support for Israel, and its strategic and political interest in
maintaining close ties with the Jewish state as a partner in the "war
against terror"; the devastating consequences for U.S.-Israeli relations
if it was suspected that Israeli agents might have known about the Sept.
11 attack -- all these factors explain why the U.S. government might
publicly downplay the art student story and conceal any investigation that
produces unpalatable results.
The pro-Israel lobby is a vast and powerful force in American politics;
the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, is the No. 1
foreign-policy lobby and the fourth most powerful lobby in Washington,
according to Fortune Magazine. Michael Lind, a senior fellow of the New
America Foundation and a former executive editor of the National Interest,
calls the Israel lobby "an ethnic donor machine" that "distorts U.S.
foreign policy" in the Middle East...
Some of the same pressures that keep government officials from criticizing
Israel may also explain why the media has failed to pursue the art student
enigma. Media outlets that run stories even mildly critical of Israel
often find themselves targeted by organized campaigns, including
form-letter e-mails, the cancellation of subscriptions, and denunciations
of the organization and its reporters and editors as anti-Semites...
The extreme sensitivity of the Israeli art student story in government
circles was made clear to this reporter when, in the midst of my inquiries
at DEA and elsewhere, I was told by a source that some unknown party had
checked my records and background. He proved it by mentioning a job I had
briefly held many years ago that virtually no one outside my family knew
Shortly after this, I received a call from an individual who identified
himself only by the code name Stability. Stability said he was referred to
me from "someone in Washington." That someone turned out to be a veteran
D.C. correspondent who has close sources in the CIA and the FBI and who
verified that Stability was a high-level intelligence agent who had been
following the art student matter from the inside. Stability was guarded in
his initial conversation with me.
He said that people in the intelligence committee were suspicious about my
bona fides and raised the possibility that someone was "using" me. "Your
name is known and has been known for quite a while," Stability said. "The
problem is that you're going into a hornet's nest with this. It's a very
difficult time in this particular area. This is a scenario where a lot of
people are living a bunker mentality."
He added, "There are a lot of people under a lot of pressure right now
because there's a great effort to discredit the story, discredit the
connections, prevent people from going any further in investigating the
matter. There are some very, very smart people who have taken a lot of
heat on this -- have gone to what I would consider extraordinary risks to
reach out. Quite frankly, there are a lot of patriots out there who'd like
to remain alive. Typically, patriots are dead..."
"I will tell you that there is still great debate over what the art
students' specific purposes were and are," Stability went on. "When you
take an individual who picks up a group of individuals from an airport,
individuals who supposedly have no idea what they're doing in-country, who
fly on over from a foreign land, whose airline tickets could in some
instances total a value greater than $15,000 -- and who get picked up at
the airport and drive specifically to one individual's home, which they
know the exact directions to: Yeah, you could say there's a problem here.
You don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand that. The
overarching item is that a lot of work went into going to people's houses
to sell them junk from China in plastic frames..."
So let's draw out the chaff ourselves and see if we can at least
speculate. In intel circles, there are a number of working theories,
according to Stability. "Profiling of federal agents is one," said
Stability. "Keeping tabs on other people, other foreign nationals, is
another. A third is that they were working for organized crime -- that's
an easy one, and it almost sounds more like a cover than a reality. The
predominant thought is that it was a profiling endeavour, and from a
profiling aspect, also one of intimidation..."
That's where you enter truly dark territory: Theory No. 3, the Art Student
as Agent as Art Student Smoke Screen. It has major problems, but let's
roll with it for a moment. This theory contends that the art student ring
was a smoke screen intended to create confusion and allow actual spies --
who were also posing as art students -- to be lumped together with the
rest and escape detection.
In other words, the operation is an elaborate double fake-out, a
hiding-in-plain-sight scam. Whoever dreamed it up thought ahead to the
endgame and knew that the DEA-stakeout aspect was so bizarre that it would
throw off American intelligence. According to this theory -- Stability's
"Victor/Victoria" scenario -- Israeli agents wanted, let's say, to monitor
al-Qaida members in Florida and other states. But they feared detection.
So to provide cover, and also to create a dizzyingly Byzantine story that
would confuse the situation, Israeli intel flooded areas of real
operations with these bumbling "art students" -- who were told to
deliberately stake out DEA agents...
What about the crucial Washington Post article, in which anonymous federal
agents alleged the DEA memo was the work of a disgruntled employee?
"The Washington Post article was a plant -- that's obvious. The story was
killed," Stability told me. Who planted the story? Stability claimed the
FBI was behind it. "Every organization is running scared," Stability
added, "because they're afraid of the next shoe to drop. There are many
smoking guns out there, many. So consequently every one is at a level of
heightened anxiety, and when they're anxious they make mistakes..."