High-Fivers and Art Student Spies
Posted on: 2007-03-12 09:37:27
What did Israel know in advance of the 9/11 attacks?
By Christopher Ketcham
On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, an FBI bulletin known as a BOLO - "be on lookout" -- was issued with regard to three suspicious men who that morning were seen leaving the New Jersey waterfront minutes after the first plane hit World Trade Center 1. Law enforcement officers across the New York-New Jersey area were warned in the radio dispatch to watch for a "vehicle possibly related to New York terrorist attack":
White, 2000 Chevrolet van with 'Urban Moving Systems' sign on back seen at Liberty State Park, Jersey City, NJ, at the time of first impact of jetliner into World Trade Center Three individuals with van were seen celebrating after initial impact and subsequent explosion. FBI Newark Field Office requests that, if the van is located, hold for prints and detain individuals.
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". From inside the vehicle the officers, who were quickly joined by agents from the FBI, retrieved multiple passports and $4,700 in cash stuffed in a sock. According to New Jersey's Bergen Record, which on September 12 reported the arrest of the five Israelis, an investigator high up in the Bergen County law enforcement hierarchy stated that officers had also discovered in the vehicle "maps of the city with certain places highlighted. It looked like they're hooked in with this", the source told the Record, referring to the 9/11 attacks. "It looked like they knew what was going to happen when they were at Liberty State Park."
The five men were indeed Israeli citizens. They claimed to be in the country working as movers for Urban Moving Systems Inc., which maintained a warehouse and office in Weehawken, New Jersey. They were held for 71 days in a federal detention center in Brooklyn, New York, during which time they were repeatedly interrogated by FBI and CIA counterterrorism teams, who referred to the men as the "high-fivers" for their celebratory behavior on the New Jersey waterfront. Some were placed in solitary confinement for at least forty days; some were given as many as seven liedetector tests. One of the Israelis, Paul Kurzberg, brother of Sivan, refused to take a lie-detector test for ten weeks. Then he failed it.
Meanwhile, two days after the men were picked up, the owner of Urban Moving Systems, Dominik Suter, a 31- year-old Israeli national, abandoned his business and fled the United States for Israel. Suter's departure was abrupt, leaving behind coffee cups, sandwiches, cell phones and computers strewn on office tables and thousands of dollars of goods in storage. Suter was later placed on the same FBI suspect list as 9/11 lead hijacker Mohammed Atta and other hijackers and suspected al-Qaeda sympathizers, suggesting that U.S. authorities felt Suter may have known something about the attacks. The suspicion, as the investigation unfolded, was that the men working for Urban Moving Systems were spies. Who exactly was handling them, and who or what they were targeting, was as yet uncertain.
It was New York's venerable Jewish weekly The Forward that broke this story in the spring of 2002, after months of footwork. The Forward reported that the FBI had finally concluded that at least two of the men were agents working for the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, and that Urban Moving Systems, the ostensible employer of the five Israelis, was a front operation. Two former CIA officers confirmed this to me, noting that movers' vans are a common intelligence cover. The Forward also noted that the Israeli government itself admitted that the men were spies. A "former high-ranking American intelligence official", who said he was "regularly briefed on the investigation by two separate law enforcement officials", told reporter Marc Perelman that after American authorities confronted Jerusalem at the end of 2001, the Israeli government "acknowledged the operation and apologized for not coordinating it with Washington". Today, Perelman stands by his reporting. I asked him if his sources in the Mossad denied the story. "Nobody stopped talking to me", he said.
In June 2002, ABC News' 20/20 followed up with its own investigation into the matter, coming to the same conclusion as The Forward. Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of operations for counterterrorism with the CIA, told 20/20 that some of the names of the five men appeared as hits in searches of an FBI national intelligence database. Cannistraro told me that the question that most troubled FBI agents in the weeks and months after 9/11 was whether the Israelis had arrived at the site of their "celebration" with foreknowledge of the attack to come. From the beginning, "the FBI investigation operated on the premise that the Israelis had foreknowledge", according to Cannistraro. A second former CIA counterterrorism officer who closely followed the case, but who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me that investigators were pursuing two theories. "One story was that [the Israelis] appeared at Liberty State Park very quickly after the first plane hit. The other was that they were at the park location already". Either way, investigators wanted to know exactly what the men were expecting when they got there.
Before such issues had been fully explored, however, the investigation was shut down. Following what ABC News reported were "high-level negotiations between Israeli and U.S. government officials", a settlement was reached in the case of the five Urban Moving Systems suspects. Intense political pressure apparently had been brought to bear. The reputable Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported that by the last week of October 2001, some six weeks after the men had been detained, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and two unidentified "prominent New York congressmen" were lobbying heavily for their release. According to a source at ABC News close to the 20/20 report, high-profile criminal lawyer Alan Dershowitz also stepped in as a negotiator on behalf of the men to smooth out differences with the U.S. government. (Dershowitz declined to comment for this article.) And so, at the end of November 2001, for reasons that only noted they had been working in the country illegally as movers, in violation of their visas, the men were flown home to Israel.