I promise I’m not saying this just because I’m an addicted fan of ‘24’ — the cult counter-terrorist American drama in which nothing is ever as it seems. But, I’m pretty convinced that there’s something about the David Headley story that’s hiding more than it’s revealing. That may also explain why there is such a gap between the excitement around the Headley case in the media and the distinct cynicism within the security establishment about whether Indian intelligence officials will ever even get to meet Headley, leave alone interrogate him.
So far, the fact that Indian sleuths were snubbed and sent packing after a failed attempt at interrogating him has been dismissed as a procedural hiccup. When America charged Headley with aiding and abetting the Mumbai attacks this week, India played to form and made all the right noises about extradition and access. But while, “we want Headley” — has the rhetorical punch of a great evening news headline, frankly, it rings hollow in real terms. The US has already dismissed the extradition issue as “too premature”. Really? Why is it too early for us to talk about wanting a suspect who scouted five Indian cities for potential terror targets and provided surveillance to the men who attacked Mumbai on 26/11? Curiously, when Headley’s taciturn lawyer, John Theis, was asked about whether Indian investigators would get to question his client, he said he had received “no such request yet”. Since then, even more puzzling reports have emerged in the American media about how David Headley is “cooperating with the prosecution”. In any case, since he has pleaded “not guilty”, he may well now “plead the Fifth.”
Under American law, the Fifth Amendment provides defendants a sort of Right to Silence, operating on the principle that a citizen has the right to not incriminate himself in a trial. In other words, the law may provide enough shields to Headley against specific questions by investigators. Forget extradition; Indian investigators may not even get to visit Headley’s prison cell in Chicago. Privately, many in the security establishment concede that the FBI has been distinctly cagey in sharing information about Headley.
The question then is: what is America hiding- and why?
The first missing piece in the puzzle goes to back the fact that Headley was on the FBI radar for over a year before he was arrested in October. In fact, he was already under surveillance one month before the 26/11 attacks. Why was this information not passed on to New Delhi at this time? How did Headley manage to make a trip to India in April 2009, five months after the Mumbai attacks, without India having a clue that the FBI was keeping a watch on him? It’s clear that information was not shared with us in real time. But given that Headley’s half brother has turned out to be an official in the public relations office of the Pakistan Prime Minister, was Islamabad given a thumbs up?
Or could it be that the reason that America has hugged the Headley case so tightly to itself is because Headley was an undercover agent who worked for them and then went rogue?
When the whisper campaign around this theory first erupted, it was dismissed as too fantastical to be the stuff of real life. Since then, however, both the New York Times and the Daily Beast website have chronicled how Headley crossed sides and worked for America’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) after he was arrested for smuggling in heroin in 1998. The NYT report even quotes court documents to say that Headley knew Pakistan’s narcotics underbelly so well that he was imprisoned for less than two years, after which he was sent to Pakistan to “conduct undercover surveillance operations for the DEA”. In the post-9/11 world of American security, the lines between drug trafficking and terrorism have blurred. In other words, the CIA may well have been just one step away from the DEA.
This busts another myth in the Headley narrative. So far, we have been told that Headley abandoned his real name of Daood Gilani and embraced an American sounding, Christian name, so he could travel in India without attracting suspicion. But, if he was an informant for the US administration, isn’t it more likely that he took on a false name so that he could whiz in and out of airports without popping up on security lists? Another investigative journalist, Gerald Posner, confirms this thesis, writing, that, “in a world of high security, Headley somehow managed to then move with apparent ease in and out of Pakistan. A convicted felon of Pakistani descent, making frequent trips back and forth to the US (there were apparently at least four in one year), would have been monitored by US tracking agencies.”
Even more eerily, the FBI had warned India that Mumbai could come under attack in September 2008. Was their intelligence so specific because Headley had supplied the information to them as an informant within the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba before turning double agent on the US?
Not surprisingly, neither the FBI nor the DEA have commented on any of these reports. But whether Headley was an agent-gone-rogue or not, it is now an empirical fact that he struck a deal in the past with law enforcement officials in the US administration. Doesn’t that fact in itself raise a whole new bunch of questions?
So, instead of playing out an official charade with statements on extradition (not likely to happen anyway), shouldn’t India be focusing on the central question: who is David Headley? And isn’t it time we get the fact that America may not want to answer that question for us. This is India’s battle. And one we will have to fight ourselves.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal