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Deported Israelis Not Spies, U.S. Says

The World

March 06, 2002|ERIC LICHTBLAU and ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Several dozen Israeli students have been deported since last year under a cloud of suspicion over possible espionage, but U.S. authorities said Tuesday that they are confident the youths were art peddlers, not spies.

Rumors of espionage by Israeli students have circulated for months only to be denied by law enforcement officials, but new reports Tuesday in the French media revived the issue, prompting Israeli officials to dismiss the articles as "nonsense."

The allegations were triggered by an internal memo last year at the Drug Enforcement Administration describing "suspicious" activity by Israeli students.

Employees at several federal buildings around the country had noticed dozens of young Israelis selling artwork and toys outside their facilities.

"The nature of the individuals' conduct," along with other factors, "leads [DEA security] to believe the incident may well be an organized intelligence-gathering activity," the memo said, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the document.

The memo cited an unconfirmed report that the students had visited homes of government employees, apparently to peddle their art.

But the DEA memo said there was no reason for immediate concern.

The FBI also looked into the issue, but "we determined that there was no counterintelligence issue here. There was no spying," according to a bureau official who asked not to be identified.

No one was ever charged with espionage, but some members of the group were deported for selling artwork without a proper work visa.

Although he did not have an exact figure, Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Russ Bergeron said that in the last year or two, several dozen Israeli students on student or visitor visas have been deported.

"Their cases were handled routinely and they were removed, and that's it," he said. There was no allegation of espionage, he said.

Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said the allegation of espionage by Israeli students "is baseless."

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