It was the tail-end of a bleak November 2001: a pall of shocked numbness hung over the country, and a rising war hysteria had nearly everyone cowed. Americans were just beginning to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and focus on what had happened, and how to react. It was very early on the morning of the 23rd when, scanning the headlines, I came across a Washington Post story by John Mintz: “60 Israelis Detained on Tourist Visas Since Sept. 11.” Odd, I thought, why go after the Israelis, probably the least likely suspects?
The subhead was even more intriguing: “Government Calls Several Cases ‘of Special Interest,’ Meaning Related to Post-Attacks Investigation.” Apparently organized groups of Israelis had been arrested, and “dozens” held without bond. Inquiries to the Justice Department had yielded this response:
“In several cases, such as those in Cleveland and St. Louis, INS officials testified in court hearings that they were ‘of special interest to the government,’ a term that federal agents have used in many of the hundreds of cases involving mostly Muslim Arab men who have been detained around the country since the terrorist attacks.
“An INS official who requested anonymity said the agency will not comment on the Israelis. But he said the use of the term ‘special interest’ means the case in question is ‘related to the investigation of September 11th.’”
It wasn’t some anti-Semitic conspiracy crank sitting in his parents’ basement, or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who first linked Israeli nationals to the events of 9/11: it was the U.S. government, specifically its law enforcement arm.
This I found utterly astonishing, because it was clear to me, at that point, that there was a link, albeit one largely unknown in its specifics. Why else were the feds casting their nets around for Israelis rather than Arabs, Persians, and, yes, Muslims?
There was more. The original Post piece was updated: the number of detained Israelis had risen to 120. I had been following the story in this space, and noting its significance, in the weeks before Carl Cameron broadcast his famous four-part report on Fox News, which exposed the extensive Israeli spy network in this country and opened with this electric charge:
“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. A highly placed investigator said there are – quote – ‘tie-ins.’ But when asked for details, he flatly refused to describe them, saying, – quote – ‘evidence linking these Israelis to 9-11 is classified. I cannot tell you about evidence that has been gathered. It’s classified information.’”
The story, as it developed in the months – and years – to come, sent me down an investigative path that has yet to reach its endpoint. What we know is this: in the months prior to 9/11, bands of Israelis posing as “art students” [.pdf] had carried out what seemed like a coordinated probing of U.S. government facilities, including locations not known to the public. A secret government report detailing the activities of the “art students” – and their background as highly trained in explosives and the art of telecommunications interception – was leaked to the media, and the story was again in the headlines. But not for long.
This is potentially one of the most important 9/11-related stories ever reported, and yet the number of serious investigative pieces done on it can hardly be counted on the fingers of one hand. Antiwar.com has been following this from the outset, and you can go here for a complete archive of my columns on the subject, plus mainstream media pieces.
Of particular interest is the coverage by The Forward, the oldest newspaper of the Jewish community in North America. They reported on one key aspect of the Israeli-9/11 connection: the story of the five employees of a moving van company apprehended hours after the twin towers were struck. They had been observed in Liberty State Park, New Jersey, overlooking the Hudson, with a clear view of the burning towers. A woman had seen them from the window of her apartment building overlooking the parking lot: they came out of a white van, and they were jumping up and down, high-fiving each other with obvious glee. Their mood, it could be said, was celebratory. They were also filming the towers as they burned, and taking still photos.
“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.’”
This is, I believe, the most detailed account yet published of what actually happened that fateful day, and Ketcham clearly shows that the Israelis were certainly aware of why they had been stopped. The cops practically had to drag them out of the van at gunpoint, and it is surely suspicious that they immediately starting denying any role in “the incident.” How did they know they weren’t being stopped for a traffic violation? No wonder they were held for 71 days, mostly in solitary confinement, and interrogated. Some repeatedly failed polygraph tests when questioned about possible surveillance activities. The FBI agents who interrogated them reportedly called them “the high-fivers,” because of their odd behavior at Liberty State Park.
Here they are on an Israeli talk show
The Forward confirmed that the company they ostensibly worked for, Urban Moving Systems, of Weehawken, New Jersey, was in all likelihood a Mossad front. Dominik Suter, the owner, fled to Israel the day after a police raid on his office. The five detained Israelis were sent back to Israel, where they claimed to be innocent victims of harassment. Here they are on an Israeli talk show. Of course they don’t mention any of the above, or that they were found to have multiple passports in their possession, along with $4,700 stuffed in a sock and maps of New York City highlighted in certain spots. Ketcham quotes one local law enforcement official as saying
“It looked like they’re hooked in with this, it looked like they knew what was going to happen when they were at Liberty State Park.”
Ketcham, utilizing the public record, news reports, and his own sources, has painted the clearest portrait yet of the “urban mover” Mossad cell, and how they shadowed the five hijackers who took over American Airlines flight 77, which struck the Pentagon to such devastating effect. Living, working, and socializing within a six-mile radius of Bergen County, these two groups circled each other until, on 9/11, as a dark pall fell over Manhattan and much of the rest of the world, one applauded the others’ handiwork.
Ketcham’s story of how the FBI investigation was scotched by high-ups ought to outrage every patriotic American citizen. He cites a source at ABC News – which covered this story on 20/20 in a treatment I consider a whitewash – as saying “They feel the higher echelons torpedoed the investigation into the Israeli New Jersey cell. Leads were not fully investigated.”
The same source agrees with the general assessment of CIA officers, and intelligence experts such as James Bamford and Vincent Cannistraro, that Urban Moving Systems was a covert Israeli intelligence-gathering operation, most likely engaged in electronic interception and other means of spying on radical elements within Northern New Jersey’s Muslim milieu.
In the course of this, and given their geographical proximity, it is not beyond reason to posit that the Urban Movers were watching the future hijackers, listening to their phone conversations, reading their emails, and otherwise keeping fully apprised of their activities. What made the Israelis jump for joy, as one counterintelligence officer is said to have put it, is that “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 story of how this line of investigation was suppressed, both in the law enforcement community and in the media, is a saga in itself. I know that Ketcham worked on this story long and hard, and had supposedly firm commitments from both Salon.com and The Nation to publish his work. Both projects were killed at the last minute, in one case an hour before it was scheduled to run. What’s particularly stupid, in the case of Salon, is that they ran his previous piece, on the “Israeli Art Student Mystery,” years ago – and now refuse to follow up their own story.
As for why the government investigation into the Israeli connection was scotched, Ketcham cites a former CIA counter-terrorism officer: “There was no question but that [the order to close down the investigation] came from the White House.”
I have to tell you that it hasn’t been easy following this story over the years. I was told in the beginning, and in no uncertain terms, that this line of investigation is forbidden, that it’s “too hot to handle,” and, implicitly, that the truth and the facts have to take second place to political correctness. To even mention this story, in certain quarters, is considered prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism. Case closed.
In spite of a determined effort on the part of some to redefine anti-Semitism to constrain critics of Israeli government actions, there is an equally determined pushback – a real movement to treat Israel as a nation like any other. That is, as a nation with its own interests, which, if truth be told, it pursues aggressively, and not only in the occupied territories and Lebanon, but also right here in the U.S. The story of Israel’s underground army in America – and its foreknowledge of the 9/11 terrorist attacks – is based on facts, not fantasies, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with anti-Semitism – and everything to do with establishing the full context of the worst terrorist attack in our history.
9/11 was the opening shot of a battle we are still fighting to this day, as our soldiers fall in Iraq, and the hints of a new front in our endless “war on terrorism” – Iran – are hardly subtle. That signal event launched the war hysteria that has only lately begun to peter out.
One of the major reasons why the public has turned against the Iraq war has been the revelation that the “intelligence” we acquired about Iraq’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction” was manipulated, cherry-picked, and outright falsified in order to make the case for the invasion. If it turns out that the Israelis really did know – that they picked up “chatter” from the groups they were watching, and gained fairly detailed knowledge of the hijackers’ plans – it will alter how we think about 9/11, and change our perception of the perpetual war that ensued.
Go here to order the Ketcham piece. You can only get it on dead-tree, but, believe me, it’s worth it.