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Thursday, March 7, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S. officials dismiss report of Israeli spies

The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON — An array of U.S. officials have dismissed reports that the U.S. government had broken up an Israeli espionage ring that consisted of young Israelis attempting to penetrate U.S. agencies by selling artwork in federal buildings.

"This seems to be an urban myth that has been circulating for months," said Justice Department spokeswoman Susan Dryden on Tuesday.

"The department has no information at this time to substantiate these widespread reports about Israeli art students involved in espionage."

Several officials said the allegations — first reported by a French online publication and later by other news organizations — of a massive U.S. probe of Israeli spies appear to have been circulated by a single employee of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) who is angry that his theories have not gained currency.

This week, the Paris-based Intelligence Online service quoted from what it said was a 61-page report by a federal task force, led by the DEA, which said that 120 Israelis posing as art students had been deported as part of an espionage crackdown and that the spy scandal had been hushed up.

But two law-enforcement officials said the disgruntled DEA agent, who disagreed with the conclusion of FBI and CIA intelligence experts that no spying was taking place, appears to be leaking a memo that he himself wrote.

Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) spokesman Russell Bergeron said several dozen Israelis in their 20s had been arrested and deported in the first nine months of 2001 for being employed without proper INS work papers. A law-enforcement official said some were investigated for possible fraud charges.

"These were routine, normal cases," Bergeron said. "I have no knowledge of any espionage-related issues with these people."

DEA spokesman Thomas Hinojosa said that multiple reports of suspicious activity on the part of young Israelis had come into the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters from agents in the field.

The reports were summarized in a draft memo last year, but Hinojosa said he did not have a copy and could not vouch for the accuracy of news-media reports describing its contents.

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