WASHINGTON Some 60 Israelis, who federal investigators have said are part of a long-running effort to spy on American government officials, are among the hundreds of foreigners detained since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Fox News has learned.
The Israelis, a handful of whom are described as active Israeli military or intelligence operatives, have been detained on immigration charges or under the new Patriot Anti-Terrorism Law. Federal investigators said some of them failed polygraph questions inquiring about alleged surveillance activities against and in the United States.
There is no indication the Israelis were involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, but investigators suspect that they may have gathered intelligence about the attacks in advance and not shared it.
A highly placed investigator told Fox News there are "tie-ins," but when asked for details flatly refused to describe them. "Evidence linking these Israelis to 9-11 is classified, I cannot tell you about evidence that has been gathered. It is classified information," the source said.
An Israeli Embassy spokesman offered categorical denials, and said any suggestion of Israelis spying on or in the United States is simply not true.
But Fox News has learned that one group of Israelis spotted in North Carolina recently is suspected of keeping an apartment in California to spy on a group of Arabs who the U.S. authorities are investigating for links to terrorism.
Numerous classified documents obtained by Fox News indicate that even prior to Sept. 11, as many as 140 other Israelis had been detained or arrested in a secretive and sprawling investigation into suspected espionage by Israelis in the United States.
Investigators from numerous government agencies are part of a working group that has been compiling evidence in the case since the mid-1990s. These documents detail hundreds of incidents in cities and towns across the country that investigators say quote "may well be an organized intelligence-gathering activity."
Investigators are focusing part of their efforts on Israelis who said they are art students from the University of Jerusalem or Bezalel Academy and repeatedly made contact with U.S. government personnel by saying they wanted to sell cheap art or handiwork.
Documents say they "targeted" and penetrated military bases, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, dozens of government facilities and even secret offices and unlisted private homes of law enforcement and intelligence personnel.
Another part of the investigation has resulted in the detention and arrest of dozens of Israelis working at kiosks in American malls, where they had been selling toys called "Puzzlecar" and "Zoomcopter."
Investigators suspected a front. Shortly after the New York Times and Washington Post reported the detentions of Israelis on immigration charges last month, the carts began vanishing.
Why would Israelis spy in and on the United States?
A General Accounting Office investigation referred to Israel as Country A and said, "According to a U.S. intelligence agency, the government of country A conducts the most aggressive espionage operation against the U.S. of any U.S. ally."
A Defense Intelligence report said Israel has a "voracious appetite for information."
"The Israelis are motivated by strong survival instincts which dictate every facet of their political and economic policies," the DIA report said. "It aggressively collects military and industrial technology and the U.S. is a high priority target.
"Israel possesses the resources and technical capability to achieve its collection objectives," the document concludes.
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