A local ABC affiliate in Salt Lake City, Utah has caused a stir online with a report suggesting that self-proclaimed Israeli art students, peddling their artwork from door to door, have been asking disturbing questions about plans to build an NSA data center in the area.
"These salespeople say they're Israeli students," ABC4 reporter Brent Hunsaker explained. "They even produce Israeli passports. They say they're selling their own artwork to raise money to open a gallery. So why would the Israeli art students want to know about the National Security Agency?"
According to Hunsaker, warnings about the students are being spread through blogs and church bulletins. One bulletin sent out to Mormon women even claimed that "federal law enforcement groups are actually investigating their ties to organized crime and terrorist groups."
There may, however, be less to the story than meets the eye.
The basis for the suspicions goes back to 2002, when a lengthy article at Salon described how Drug Enforcement Agency field offices were reporting that "young Israelis claiming to be art students and offering artwork for sale had been attempting to penetrate DEA offices for over a year. The Israelis had also attempted to penetrate the offices of other law enforcement and Department of Defense agencies."
According to author Christopher Ketcham, "Some of the Israelis were observed diagramming the inside of federal buildings. Some were found carrying photographs they had taken of federal agents. One was discovered with a computer printout in his luggage that referred to 'DEA groups.' In some cases, the Israelis visited locations not known to the public -- areas without street addresses, for example, or DEA offices not identified as such."
These reports were summarized in a June 2001 internal DEA memo, but what brought the story to public notice was a Fox News special in December of that year. It suggested that the "art students" might have been Israeli spies who had trailed al-Qaeda members across the United States but had never shared any information they might have gained on the plans for September 11 with US authorities.
Ultimately, the more conspiratorial aspects of the story proved impossible to confirm, and it became one more unsolved 9/11 mystery. Since then, self-proclaimed "Israeli art students" have continued to show up from time to time, but most of them are clearly running a scam.
Police in Ontario, Canada, for example, are currently issuing warnings about individuals going door to door and asking hundreds of dollars for "one of a kind" artworks that are "actually mass-produced oil paintings from China worth about $15."
The situation is somewhat different in Utah, however, where the sudden appearance of the art students is being tied to recent news reports that "the Army has awarded a $1.2 billion contract to a construction consortium to build a spacious new data center in Utah for the National Security Agency's (NSA's) cybersecurity effort."
The facility is part of the Comprehensive National Security Initiative, launched in 2008, whose aim is to protect military computer networks from cyber-threats and provide assistance to the Department of Homeland Security in securing the federal government's civilian networks.
Hunsaker's investigation, on the other hand, was unable to turn up anyone who had actually been asked questions about the data center. One woman who had bought a painting said the subject was never raised. And a Saratoga Springs policeman commented only that the young people he ticketed for soliciting without a business license "looked like everyday college students," but that when he asked one of them to draw a picture, "it was about on par with what my kindergartner could have done."
"They just may be young people selling cheap art at high prices," Hunsaker concluded. "A scam."
This video is from ABC4 News and was posted to YouTube on September 30, 2010 by antiwar.com.