On 9/11 there were numerous reports of celebrating Middle Easterners in New Jersey, but this is the one that appears to have been most carefully documented. From ABC News on an incident that has since been pretty much memory-holed:
Millions saw the horrific images of the World Trade Center attacks, and those who saw them won’t forget them. But a New Jersey homemaker saw something that morning that prompted an investigation into five young Israelis and their possible connection to Israeli intelligence.
Maria, who asked us not to use her last name, had a view of the World Trade Center from her New Jersey apartment building. She remembers a neighbor calling her shortly after the first plane hit the towers.
She grabbed her binoculars and watched the destruction unfolding in lower Manhattan. But as she watched the disaster, something else caught her eye.
Maria says she saw three young men kneeling on the roof of a white van in the parking lot of her apartment building. “They seemed to be taking a movie,” Maria said.
The men were taking video or photos of themselves with the World Trade Center burning in the background, she said. What struck Maria were the expressions on the men’s faces. “They were like happy, you know … They didn’t look shocked to me. I thought it was very strange,” she said.
She found the behavior so suspicious that she wrote down the license plate number of the van and called the police. Before long, the FBI was also on the scene, and a statewide bulletin was issued on the van.
The plate number was traced to a van owned by a company called Urban Moving. Around 4 p.m. on Sept. 11, the van was spotted on a service road off Route 3, near New Jersey’s Giants Stadium. A police officer pulled the van over, finding five men, between 22 and 27 years old, in the vehicle. The men were taken out of the van at gunpoint and handcuffed by police.
The arresting officers said they saw a lot that aroused their suspicion about the men. One of the passengers had $4,700 in cash hidden in his sock. Another was carrying two foreign passports. A box cutter was found in the van. But perhaps the biggest surprise for the officers came when the five men identified themselves as Israeli citizens.
According to the police report, one of the passengers told the officers they had been on the West Side Highway in Manhattan “during the incident” — referring to the World Trade Center attack. The driver of the van, Sivan Kurzberg, told the officers, “We are Israeli. We are not your problem. Your problems are our problems. The Palestinians are the problem.” The other passengers were his brother Paul Kurzberg, Yaron Shmuel, Oded Ellner and Omer Marmari.
When the men were transferred to jail, the case was transferred out of the FBI’s Criminal Division, and into the bureau’s Foreign Counterintelligence Section, which is responsible for espionage cases, ABCNEWS has learned.
One reason for the shift, sources told ABCNEWS, was that the FBI believed Urban Moving may have been providing cover for an Israeli intelligence operation. …
Steven Gordon, the attorney for the five Israeli detainees, acknowledged that his clients’ actions on Sept. 11 would easily have aroused suspicions. “You got a group of guys that are taking pictures, on top of a roof, of the World Trade Center. They’re speaking in a foreign language. They got two passports on ‘em. One’s got a wad of cash on him, and they got box cutters. Now that’s a scary situation.”
But Gordon insisted that his clients were just five young men who had come to America for a vacation, ended up working for a moving company, and were taking pictures of the event.
The five Israelis were held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, ostensibly for overstaying their tourist visas and working in the United States illegally. Two weeks after their arrest, an immigration judge ordered them to be deported. But sources told ABCNEWS that FBI and CIA officials in Washington put a hold on the case.
The five men were held in detention for more than two months. Some of them were placed in solitary confinement for 40 days, and some of them were given as many as seven lie-detector tests.
Since their arrest, plenty of speculation has swirled about the case, and what the five men were doing that morning. Eventually, The Forward, a respected Jewish newspaper in New York, reported the FBI concluded that two of the men were Israeli intelligence operatives.
Vince Cannistraro, a former chief of operations for counterterrorism with the CIA who is now a consultant for ABCNEWS, said federal authorities’ interest in the case was heightened when some of the men’s names were found in a search of a national intelligence database.
According to Cannistraro, many people in the U.S. intelligence community believed that some of the men arrested were working for Israeli intelligence. Cannistraro said there was speculation as to whether Urban Moving had been “set up or exploited for the purpose of launching an intelligence operation against radical Islamists in the area, particularly in the New Jersey-New York area.”
Under this scenario, the alleged spying operation was not aimed against the United States, but at penetrating or monitoring radical fund-raising and support networks in Muslim communities like Paterson, N.J., which was one of the places where several of the hijackers lived in the months prior to Sept. 11.
For the FBI, deciphering the truth from the five Israelis proved to be difficult. One of them, Paul Kurzberg, refused to take a lie-detector test for 10 weeks — then failed it, according to his lawyer. Another of his lawyers told us Kurzberg had been reluctant to take the test because he had once worked for Israeli intelligence in another country.
Sources say the Israelis were targeting these fund-raising networks because they were thought to be channeling money to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, groups that are responsible for most of the suicide bombings in Israel. …
Despite the denials, sources tell ABCNEWS there is still debate within the FBI over whether or not the young men were spies.
I doubt if this was terribly important incident, although I have to say I was surprised to see how seriously the FBI took it.
My guess is that there are many casual ties between Israeli intelligence, Israeli business interests (e.g., telecom software), organized crime (e.g., the Ecstasy pill trade), and Israeli illegal immigrants in the U.S.
For example, I can vaguely recall decades ago the marketing research firm I worked for being subjected to intrusive “Israeli art students.” Were they selling bad paintings? Were they trying to spy on us? Both? It didn’t seem like any kind of sophisticated effort. What in the world kind of info could you steal by barging around the hallways of a consumer packaged goods research firm with the office manager trying to throw you out? It was more like just something that random aggressive Israeli young people might think might turn out to be a good idea. Or maybe they could sell some crummy paintings. Or maybe it would just be a fun adventure.
But that’s how good intelligence systems work: you can’t afford to pay for full timers to cover everything, so you exchange gossip with merchants and journalists on your side and encourage them to be pushy about finding out stuff.
For example, the Tom Hanks character in Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” is portrayed as a humble insurance lawyer who just happens to get picked by the local bar association to defend the arrested Soviet spymaster Rudolf Abel. But in reality, the man Hanks portrays had been the head lawyer for the CIA’s predecessor, the OSS, in WWII. After the war he went into commercial law because it pays better than being a government lawyer. But the American government continued to trust him to handle delicate deals, just as the remarkably prosperous East German lawyer he negotiated the Francis Gary Powers swap with had been vetted by his side.
As far as I can tell, U.S. intelligence is fairly hamstrung by fear of leaks and traitors. For example, a friend applied for a job as a CIA analyst, but it took forever for the security checks so he took a job in private industry instead. My impression is that Israeli intelligence is more free-wheeling because it trusts Israeli Jews (with the exception of that technician who spilled the beans that, yes, Israel has nukes). But I’m speculating because what do I know?