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Security expert discusses missed warnings on terrorist suspect

by Allison Roy
Nov 11, 2010


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ALLISON ROY/Medill News Service

Officials of the Chicago D.E.A., which had an extensive history with Headley, declined comment on its relationship with him. 

A recent investigation of the relationship between government authorities and former Chicago drug dealer and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant David C. Headley, a central figure in the plotting of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, has found that intelligence agencies had deployed Headley to Pakistan, despite receiving several warnings that he might be a terrorist.

According to Luis Caso, Headley’s former probation officer, the former heroin dealer was released from probation early in November 2001 so he could work as an informant for the D.E.A. on the East Coast and in Pakistan.

“All I knew was the D.E.A. wanted him in Pakistan as fast as possible because they said they were close to making some big cases,” Caso said in an interview.

Officials of the Chicago and New York D.E.A., each which had an extensive history with Headley, declined comment on their relationship with him. The F.B.I. and C.I.A. maintain that Headley has never worked for them.

However, Headley was deployed to Pakistan in December 2001 and, according to American government officials, immediately began training with the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba in small arms and explosives even while he was working as an informant until 2003, according to published reports about the case.

In 2007, Headley began scouting targets for the group to target and pleaded guilty for the 2008 four-day attack in Mumbai that left 164 dead.  It is not clear when or why his relationship with the U.S. government ended.

President Obama briefed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Sunday on the findings of the review, which was undertaken last month by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The review identified at least five separate instances between 2001 and 2007 where the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the D.E.A. were contacted by Headley’s girlfriends and simultaneous wives who each stated he sympathized with radical Islamic groups, according to published reports.

The first two tips about Headley’s terrorist involvement had surfaced shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the F.B.I and other intelligence agencies were  “overwhelmed” with updating the technology and databases for tracking terror threats.

Officials said they were confident that the system for tracking threats has been improved to deal with the tracking of such threats and that the findings of Headley’s review may have been the products of post Sept. 11 system defects which have since been corrected.

Bruce Riedel, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution and a former C.I.A officer said Wednesday that he thought there was more to Headley’s deployment than database flaws. Riedel echoed what other federal officials have said in media reports in saying that he believed Headley’s role as a crucial informant on Pakistani drug trafficking may have caused the D.E.A. to look the other way.

Riedel said the Indian government was right to ask, “Why weren’t alarms screaming,” but not enough facts had been gleaned from the review to properly assess the performance of the U.S. agencies involved with Headley.

“The [Director of National Intelligence] has just started the investigation and we need to hear the results before finding solutions,” he said. Riedel added that understanding the relationship between Headley and the DEA and when the relationship ended is crucial to figuring out where the agency went wrong in investing its trust in him.

The investigation found four additional warnings that surfaced in 2001, 2002, April 2008 and December 2008 from the former drug dealer’s ex-girlfriend in New York City, a business owner who knew Headley’s mother near Philadelphia, one of his mother’s friends in the Philadelphia area and Headley’s wife in Morocco, according to the intelligence report.

According to published reports, a senior United States official said despite these warnings, the government did not feel the evidence was strong enough to indicate Headley was engaged in planning an attack against India or require action to be taken against him

Headley was arrested in October 2009 in connection to a plot against a Danish newspaper that ran caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad in 2005.

Since then, Headley, now 50, has been in federal custody in Chicago.

Additionally, Indian government officials said they might seek clarification from the United States on why there is no record of David Headley’s name change in his passport.   

According to a one-page report released by the U.S. government to Indian officials Monday, Headley had changed his name from Dawood Gilani to David Coleman Headley to avoid being identified as a Pakistani-American. Indian government officials said had this been noted on his passport, Indian immigration officials would have been alerted during his multiple visits to the country.