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Cheering Movers and Art Student Spies: Was Israel Tracking the Hijackers Before the 9/11 Attacks?

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A new article in the newsletter Counterpunch examines unresolved questions over whether Israeli agents were tracking the 9/11 hijackers before September 11th. ABC’s 20/20, The Forward, and Salon.com have all covered the story. But where’s the follow up? We speak to the author of the article, Christopher Ketcham; Counterpunch editor Alexander Cockburn, and Marc Perelman, the Forward reporter who did one of the first reports on the story in 2002. [includes rush transcript]

Were Israeli agents tracking the 9/11 hijackers before September 11th? In 2002, ABC’s 20/20, Salon.com, and the Jewish newspaper The Forward all did this story. But where’s the follow up?

Freelance journalist Christopher Ketcham has just published a comprehensive piece on this story in the newsletter Counterpunch. The article highlights various interconnected stories: The five Israeli "movers" who witnesses say were cheering after the first plane struck the World Trade Center; the so-called Israeli art students who were living in concentrated areas where hijackers were living around the United States and how two of the hijackers ended up on the Watch List weeks before 9/11.

Christopher Ketcham, the author of the article, joins us on the line from Upstate New York. Alexander Cockburn also joins us on the line. He is the editor of Counterpunch where the piece is published. And with us here in the firehouse studio is Marc Perelman he is the reporter who did one of the first reports on the story for The Forward in 2002.

  • Marc Perelman. Diplomatic Correspondent for The Forward. He broke the story about Israeli spies in 2002.
  • Christopher Ketcham. Freelance journalist. Author of "What Did Israel Know in Advance of the 9/11 Attacks?" in the latest edition of CounterPunch’s print newsletter.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Ketcham, the author of the article, joins us on the line from Upstate New York. Alexander Cockburn also joins us on the phone. He is the editor of Counterpunch, where the piece is published. And with us here in the firehouse studio is Marc Perelman. He is the reporter who did one of the first reports on the story for the newspaper, The Forward, in 2002.

Why don’t we begin with Christopher Ketcham? Christopher, start off with the story you begin with in this latest piece, and that’s the story of the five so-called "movers," this story that has been documented, talked about, rumored about. Explain what happened that morning of 9/11.

CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM: Sure. Let me just preface this whole conversation just to say that the Counterpunch article does not pretend to provide readers with a definitive smoking gun for these allegations. Rather, what I’ve done is gathered all the available information on the matter. That is, the disparate media reports that you mentioned; leaked documents from FBI, CIA and the Justice Department; conversations with former intelligence officials and current FBI officers.

Now, the upshot of all this available evidence is this: the Israeli government likely was conducting some kind of spy operation on US soil in the run-up to the September 11th attacks. The purpose of the operation was to identify and track Muslim extremists, possibly including members of al-Qaeda.

Now, the best evidence that we have for this is, in fact, the story of these five moving men. Now, three of these guys were seen on the morning of September 11, just after the first plane hit the North Tower, quote-unquote, "celebrating" on the New Jersey waterfront. Now, that’s — I put the quotes around that, because it comes from a FBI BOLO, or "be on lookout," an alert that was put out regarding these men that day. The celebration apparently consisted of high-fiving, according to one FBI official, of holding up cigarette lighters, as if they’re at a rock concert. So, remember, the plane has just hit the tower, exploded in the tower, and these three men are behaving rather oddly.

Later in the day, they were picked up. Two other men apparently joined them in a van. They were —- the case was immediately handed over to FBI counterintelligence. The men were held for 71 days. They were repeatedly interrogated. They repeatedly failed lie detector tests. And then, after those 71 days was up, they were sent home, apparently under pressure or because of pressure brought by the Israeli government and by certain players in the US government. And the story sort of disappeared from there. I mean, 20/20 covered this -—

AMY GOODMAN: Just one thing, Chris Ketcham, you say — you quote the officer who arrested them, named DeCarlo. You say, according to DeCarlo’s report, this officer was told without question by the driver of the moving van, Sivan Kurzberg, "We are Israeli. We are not your problem. Your problems are our problems. The Palestinians are the problem."

CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM: Right. Well, what’s interesting there is that, you recall after the first plane hit, no one really thought that this was a terrorist attack. I mean, most people thought — and I was there, you know, on the Brooklyn waterfront watching this whole thing. Everyone thought it was an accident. These guys, when they were interrogated by FBI, told them that — essentially said that they immediately knew it was a terrorist attack. And they actually told the FBI that the reason they were celebrating was because the attacks would be beneficial to Israel, that it was, quote, "a good thing for Israel" — that’s according to the FBI spokesman who spoke on the record about this — and that it would bring sympathy for Israel’s political agenda in the Middle East.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And if I could interrupt, I’d like to bring in Marc Perelman to the conversation. Marc, it was your newspaper, The Forward, that first broke the story that the FBI thought that at least a couple of these people were Mossad agents. Could you talk about that and how you uncovered that information?

MARC PERELMAN: Yes, we ended up writing a story in March of 2002, after several months of reporting, because when this incident happened, obviously, a lot of people were intrigued, including journalists. And so, everybody was trying to find more information about this. And I’ve been talking to sources and trying to find out a little bit more, and after a while, I was able to confirm that, according to the FBI, two of those movers were identified as Mossad agents. And they were interrogated about it.

Obviously, the circumstances around the interrogation, there was a lot of panic after 9/11. People were looking for suspects everywhere. So the reports about exactly how they were behaving and what they said — I mean, we should be a little bit careful about this, because —- and so, what I tried to do is go beyond the reports about them smiling and high-fiving, and so on, because I had my doubts about this. I still have them, by the way. And so, what I did was try to back up the information I had, that they were indeed recognized as Mossad agents who were essentially tracking a Muslim activist in the New York/New Jersey area, which was known to be active since the mid—’90s, and so we eventually were able to piece the story together and go with it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what eventually happened to the five men?

MARC PERELMAN: They were sent home to Israel in, I think, November, if I remember, allegedly for immigration violations, and they’re home.

AMY GOODMAN: We don’t have much time, and I wanted to get to another story, which was a story of the so-called "art students," Christopher Ketcham. Very briefly outline this parallel story.

CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM: Well, basically, the phenomenon of the art students, for want of a better phrase, because it is truly a mystery, even to me — I’m a complete agnostic about this part of the story — these so-called art students were young Israeli men and women who were traveling the country. They were identified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as repeatedly attempting to penetrate government offices, including DEA offices, and to sell, to try to sell art, these cheap knockoff oil paintings, to government officials.

Now, after September 11th, when, in the wake of these sudden attacks, investigators began to go back and look at the nexus of art student activity with the nexuses of the activities of the future hijackers, of the 9/11 hijackers, and what they found was that the art students, in many cases, were living in very close proximity to the September 11 hijackers. Many of these art students were moving large amounts of cash, some of them were reportedly, according to Le Monde, carrying cell phones provided them by an Israeli vice consul in the US. Many of them were highly trained in electronic intercept and intelligence work that was far beyond the compulsory military training required by Israeli law. So these were part of the — suspicions were aroused, and they remain.

AMY GOODMAN: Suspicions that they were tracking the hijackers?

MARC PERELMAN: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Alexander Cockburn. You have published this piece. It is titled "Cheering Movers and Art Student Spies: What Did Israel Know in Advance of the 9/11 Attacks?" Who were the Israelis living next to Mohammed Atta? What was in the van on the New Jersey shore? How did two hijackers land on watch lists weeks before 9/11? Who shut down FOX News’s Carl Cameron? We just have two minutes, but talk about the way the media has covered this, why you chose to cover it, and that last story of FOX.

ALEXANDER COCKBURN: The main thing, Amy, is that basically the story, which Perelman and others did do good work on, has been systematically suppressed by the media for a very long time, starting with FOX News, which killed off Cameron, the ABC News, which dropped it. And, obviously, there are thousands of questions, which Ketcham goes into in great detail, which should be the subject of congressional hearings and investigations, such as, was the Mossad essentially being subcontracted by the CIA to work in the United States on spying, which would be illegal? How much did the Israelis really know? If it was a good thing for Israel, maybe they withheld the final news that the thing was going to land. That’s a speculation, of course, but it should be investigated and probed.

It’s absolutely extraordinary that Ketcham’s story, which has been worked on, which is a very long and complex story, could not find any market until Counterpunch, which is what we’re here for, could published it. Obviously, the main reason is the word "Israel." People drop it like a hot potato. As soon as you hear people say it’s a good thing for Israel, the whole lobby came in and had those people whipped out of their jail and sent back to Israel. And since then, all questions regarding it had been systematically checked off. I think that’s the sort of, you know, journalistic patty-cake —

ALEXANDER COCKBURN: Alexander, this story that you’ve published first was going to go to salon.com, then The Nation?

ALEXANDER COCKBURN: That’s what I understand from Christopher, yes. That’s true.

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Ketcham?

CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM: Yeah. The editors didn’t feel that there was any news here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And I’d like to ask Marc Perelman, were you surprised when the 9/11 Commission Report came out that there was no mention of — at all in the reports of possible knowledge by Israeli agents in this country of the attacks or tracking of some of these suspects?

MARC PERELMAN: Yes and no. I mean, I was surprised, because, since there have been questions that are still being asked now, that at least the commission would address the issue, even to debunk it. That being said, my reporting was narrow, was about those movers and what were they doing. And the conclusion was that they were essentially spying on radical activists in the region, and that they had been let go, because the American authorities had determined that they did not have foreknowledge of the attacks, which is different than what the article says, because it implies that they were essentially shipped to Israel because of the Israel lobby, and because they knew, whereas what I have been able to find out is that they were sent home because they did something they were not supposed to do and without the knowledge of the American government, which is an issue, obviously, that should be discussed publicly.

AMY GOODMAN: That the Israelis were spying on US soil.

MARC PERELMAN: Right, without the approval of the US authorities. Sometimes friendly governments have agreements, where they can kind of like spy together. Apparently, this was a case where it was not happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Marc, we’re going to have to leave it there. Marc Perelman of The Forward, which is based in New York; Christopher Ketcham, freelance journalist, author of this latest piece that appears in Counterpunch; Alexander Cockburn, thanks also for joining us, editor of Counterpunch newletter.

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