Copyright 2002 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.
SHOW: 20/20 (10:00 PM ET) – ABC
June 21, 2002 Friday
HEADLINE: Five Israeli men arrested soon after 9/11 might have been working for Israeli intelligence, but likely did not know beforehand about the attacks
ANCHORS: BARBARA WALTERS; JOHN MILLER
Announcer: From Times Square in New York, Barbara Walters and John Miller. BARBARA WALTERS, co-host:
Good evening, and welcome to 20/20.
Tonight, a very important 20/20 investigation into a very ugly story that’s made its way around the world since September 11th. The story is that Israel knew more than it would like to admit about the terrorist attack in this coun-try. It’s a rumor, but in some Arab countries–including Saudi Arabia, which I visited earlier this year–even educated people told me that they believe it is absolutely true. So how could such a rumor take hold? And John, I know that you have been looking into this now for months.
JOHN MILLER, co-host: We have. And when you try to trace the roots of this rumor, all roads seem to lead to the arrest of of group of Israeli men on the very day of the attacks, men who seemed coincidentally to be in the right place at the right time, and behaving strangely. Why did they become the focus of months of investigation by the FBI and the CIA? Why were they repeatedly asked by the FBI if they had any advance knowledge of the attacks, and in fact, did they? Surprisingly, the tip that led to the arrests of these five men did not come from a spy satellite, it came from a New Jersey housewife.
(VO) On the morning of September 11th, Maria–who asked us not to use her last name–was home preparing for her day, when she got a call from a friend who lived upstairs in the same New Jersey high-rise.
MARIA: She was sitting when she heard a noise, at the same time she felt like it–it shook–like the building shook, she said. She called me immediately. She said, ‘You know, there’s–there’s something wrong, look at your window by the twin towers.’ So I grab my binoculars and I could see the towers from my window. And this is where I, you know, I’m looking. I saw the smoke from the top, just from the top of the towers.
MILLER: (VO) After watching for a little while, something caught Maria’s attention in the parking lot below her window.
MARIA: Like a few minutes must have gone on, and all of a sudden down there I see this van park. And I see three guys on top of the van, and I’m trying, you know, to look at the building but what caught my attention, they seemed to be taking a movie.
MILLER: (VO) Maria says the three young men were kneeling on the roof of a white van. It was parked right here. They were taking pictures of each other with the World Trade Center burning in the background.
MARIA: And I could see that they were, like, happy, you know? They–they–they weren’t–they didn’t look shocked to me, you know? They didn’t look shocked. I thought it was very strange.
MILLER: (VO) Maria found the behavior so suspicious she wrote down the license plate number. She and her husband, Pat, called the police. Soon police and the FBI were on the scene. The license plate was traced to a van owned by a company called Urban Moving. A state-wide alarm was transmitted over the police radio.
Deputy Chief ROBERT DEL PRIORE (Weehawken Police Department): It stated in–in effect, to be on the lookout for an Urban Movers van with a license plate number that was given out.
MILLER: (VO) Around 4 PM that day, this white Chevy van was stopped by police near Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Inside it were five men, all in their 20s. These grainy photos of the event were taken by a man who witnessed the scene from a nearby hotel.
(OC) The van was stopped right here. Police pulled the five men out at gun point and handcuffed them. And almost immediately, police say, there was plenty to be suspicious of. One of the men had $4700 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 police was when the five men identified themselves as being Israeli.
(VO) According to Officer Scott DeCarlo’s police report, one of the passengers told him, “We were on the West Side Highway in New York City during the incident,” not behind Maria’s apartment building in New Jersey. The driver told them, ‘We are Israeli. We are not your problem. Your problems are our problems. The Palestinians are the problem.’ The men ranged in age from 22 to 27. The driver was Sivan Kurzberg. The other passengers included his brother, Paul Kurzberg, Yaron Shmuel, Oded Ellner and Omer Marmari. The men, who all said they worked for Urban Moving, were taken to this new Jersey State Police Station and questioned by the FBI.
(OC) ABC News has learned that after the five men were taken to jail, the entire case was transferred out of FBI’s criminal division and into its foreign counterintelligence section, which is responsible for espionage cases. One reason for the shift, according to our sources, is that the FBI believed Urban Moving may have provided a cover for agents of Israeli intelligence. Urban Moving is owned by Dominic Suter (ph), an Israeli businessman. After the five men were arrested in one of his vans, the FBI got a warrant and searched the company’s offices.
Ms. PAULINE STEPKOVICH: (ph) The FBI was here hours. Hours.
MILLER: (VO) Pauline Stepkovich, who lives right across the street from Urban Moving, watched as federal investigators went in and out of the building.
Ms. STEPKOVICH: Two SUVs were filled up with between nine and 12 boxes and computers.
MILLER: (VO) Dominic Suter’s attorney confirms that the FBI removed boxes of documents and a dozen computer hard drives from Urban Moving. He insists his client answered all of the FBI’s questions. But a few days later, when the FBI wanted to interview Mr. Suter again, he was gone. Our 20/20 cameras took these pictures inside Urban Moving some three months later. And as you can see, it looked like Suter shut down the business in a big hurry. Cell phones and personal effects were lying around Suter’s office, the phones were still connected with hundreds of messages waiting. There were job applications to be processed, and the property of dozens of families packed in the warehouse. Dominic Suter’s company closed down in such a hurry, some of their customers, like Frank Crisp (ph), were left hanging.
Mr. FRANK CRISP: They were–they were really short on the–on the phone, and it was like they wanted to get off and–and get out.
MILLER: (VO) Dominic Suter cleared out of his New Jersey home, too, and he’d put it up for sale. Suter and his family had returned to Israel. We called him there, but he refused to talk to us about Urban Moving. Was Israeli intelligence using Urban Moving as a cover?
(OC) And if not, why did the company suddenly shut down after the five employees arrested? Why did the owner abruptly leave the country, leaving behind a significant investment, a thriving business, and a lot of unhappy customers? The FBI needed answers to three important questions: Who were these men? What brought them to that parking lot on the morning of September 11th? And did they have any advanced knowledge of what was going to happen that day?
Mr. STEVE GORDON: So you got a group of guys that are taking pictures on top of a roof, of the World Trade Center, they’re speaking a foreign language, they got two passports on them, one’s got a wad of cash on him and they’ve got box cutters. Now that’s a scary situation.
MILLER: (VO) Steve Gordon was the attorney for the five Israeli detainees. We interviewed him back in October, shortly after 20/20 began investigating this incident.
(OC) So who are these kids, and how did they get entangled in this?
Mr. GORDON: They’re five young kids who–who left Israel, tried to leave a war zone, if you so will. They came to America. They came here, initially, for a vacation. They came here to work and they started work for a moving company.
MILLER: Now, the witness that we interviewed said that they were acting very strangely.
Mr. GORDON: If her story is to be believed, then of course I don’t believe I nor anybody else would–would condone any type of behavior.
MARIA: You know, they’re laughing. They’re laughing. One of them, I noticed, distinctively, put his hand on top of the other guy why they’re filming, on top of his shoulder.
Mr. GORDON: Indeed, I did ask them about that, and they denied celebrating, they denied rejoicing.
MILLER: So were they horsing around?
Mr. GORDON: They were not horsing around. And the very first question that I asked Mr. Ellner was, ‘Tell me what–what happened.’ He said, ‘We were taking pictures.’ Were they smiling in those photographs? Perhaps they were smiling.
MILLER: (VO) Sources tell 20/20 the FBI developed film from a camera taken from the Israelis, and that it shows the three on top of the white van were smiling and appeared to be clowning around. The five Israelis were held at this federal jail for allegedly overstaying their visas.
(OC) In fact, within two weeks, an immigration judge routinely ordered them deported. But that is when, according to sources who spoke to 20/20, the FBI and CIA put a hold on the case. And over the next two months, some of the men were held in solitary confinement, questioned repeatedly and some of them were given up to seven lie detector tests. Clearly this was more than your average immigration case.
(OC) So when they were being questioned and when they were being polygraphed, what were the questions they were being asked?
Mr. GORDON: I believe the questions surrounded what they were doing in America, what were they–were doing on September 11th with regard to whether or not they actually had any involvement in the World Trade Center incident. They were asked questions if they had ever been approached by or hired by any non-United States intelligence community.
MILLER: (VO) Since their arrest, there has been plenty of speculation and ru-mor about who these men were and what they were doing that morning. Eventually The Forward, a respected Jewish newspaper in New York, reported that the FBI concluded that at least two of them were Mossad operatives. That is, agents of Israeli intelligence.
Mr. VINCE CANNISTRARO: When the federal investigators checked the names of the people who had been arrested through a national intelligence database, some of the names came up as hits.
MILLER: (VO) Vince Cannistraro is a former chief of operations for counter-terrorism with the Central Intelligence Agency. Now he’s a consultant with ABC News. He says many in the US intelligence community believe that some of the men arrested in the white van were in the US working for Israeli intelligence. They speculate that Urban Moving was being used by Israel as an intelligence front.
Mr. CANNISTRARO: …set up or exploited for the purpose of launching an operation, an intelligence operation, against radical Islamics in the area, particularly in the New Jersey/New York area.
MILLER: (VO) Under the scenario, the spying operation was not aimed against the United States, but at penetrating or monitoring radical fund-raising and support networks in Muslim communities like Patterson, New Jersey, which was one of the places where several of the hijackers lived in the months prior to 9/11.
Mr. CANNISTRARO: Israeli government has been concerned about activity of radical Islamic groups in the United States. There could be a support apparatus to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two groups which are conducting the majority of the suicide bombings in Israel.
MILLER: (VO) The suspicion that some of the young men might be with Israeli intelligence, coupled with the account of their odd behavior on the van, raised serious questions for investigators.
Mr. CANNISTRARO: The fear of some of the FBI investigators in this particular case was that this group had some advanced knowledge of what was going to happen on 9/11. And once they understood that there was an Israeli connection–an Israeli intelligence connection–they became very disturbed, because the implication was that the Israelis may have had some advanced knowledge of the events of 9/11 and hadn’t told us.
MILLER: (VO) For the FBI, deciphering the truth about the five Israelis proved to be difficult. One of them, Paul Kurzberg, refused to take a lie detector test. But after 10 weeks in jail he did take the polygraph and failed it. One of his lawyers later told us Kurzberg had been reluctant to take the test because he had once work for Israeli intelligence in another country. Later, he took a second polygraph test. His lawyer says the results were more favorable. Sources tell 20/20, after high-level negotiations between Israeli and US gov-ernment officials, a settlement was worked out. And after 71 days, the five Israelis were taken out of jail, put on a plane and deported back home. 20/20 traveled to Israel to try and meet the five young men and ask them, were they part of an Israeli intelligence operation in the United States. We went to a small town outside of Jerusalem to meet Paul Kurzberg.
Mr. PAUL KURZBERG: (Through translator) I went to work over there because, I don’t know, the situation here is not the best.
MILLER: (VO) This is Kurzberg’s younger brother, Sivan, who was one of the three men on top of the van that morning.
Mr. SIVAN KURZBERG: (Through translator) They took away two months of my life. During that time I was supposed to be on a trip that I had planned when I started my military service.
MILLER: (VO) Although Paul and Sivan would not talk with us about the incident, Sivan and two of the other detainees did go on an Israeli talk show after their return. Oded Ellner denied they were laughing or happy that today.
Mr. ODED ELLNER: (Through translator, from Israeli talk show) Nothing of the kind, the fact of the matter is, we are coming from a country that experiences terror daily. Our purpose was to document the event.
MILLER: (VO) Ellner also complained that they had been mistreated and subjected to repeated interrogations.
Mr. ELLNER: (Through translator, from Israeli talk show) And at that point, we were taken for another round of questioning, this time related to our allegedly being members of Mossad.
MILLER: (VO) Their attorney in Israel is Ram Horvitz.
Mr. RAM HORVITZ: This story about the five boys being connected with Israeli intelligence is the most stupid and ridiculous story that I ever heard, and it is nonsense. I don’t know who invented this story.
Mr. MARK REGAV: These men were not involved in any way in any intelligence operation in the United States.
MILLER: (VO) Mark Regav, the spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington, goes even further to say the issue was never even discussed with the US officials.
Mr. REGAV: These five Israelis were not involved in any intelligence operation in the United States. And the Americans, the American intelligence authorities, have never raised this issue with us. The story is simply false.
MILLER: (VO) Source tell 20/20 there is still debate within the FBI over whether or not the young men were spies. But many in the US intelligence community believe that some of the men were engaged in espionage for Israel. However, sources also tell us, even if they were spies, there was no evidence to conclude they had advanced knowledge of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Mr. CANNISTRARO: The investigation, at the end of the day, after all of the polygraphs, all of the field work, all of the cross-checking, the intelligence work, concluded that they probably did not have advanced knowledge of 9/11.
WALTERS: John, so the FBI has concluded that these men did not have any advanced knowledge of the attack on the Trade Center.
MILLER: And they seem to be comfort with that conclusion.
WALTERS: OK. Then what were they doing looking at the World Trade Center then?
MILLER: They say that they read about the attack on the Internet, went to the roof of the moving company, couldn’t really see it, and then went to the higher ground to get a better view and to take pictures.
WALTERS: Well, all right, but why were they smiling?
MILLER: Well, that’s been the most difficult question. And the only explanations we’ve had, both from the lawyer and from the Israeli government, is chalking that up just to immature conduct.
WALTERS: But the bottom line is, that there is no evidence that these men knew about the attacks in advance.
MILLER: No. And I think the FBI and the CIA spent a great deal of time trying to drill down to that answer and found no proof of that.
WALTERS: Well, I hope that we have put this rumor to rest once and for all.
MILLER: We’ve certainly tried.
WALTERS: We’ll be right back.