The US Drug Enforcement Agency has finally broken its silence about its star agent David Coleman Headley, but only to own up to a very limited relationship with him.
The agency deactivated Headley as a confidential source on March 27, 2002, a senior agency official told ProPublica, an investigative news organisation.
This would be weeks after Headley began training at Lashkar-e-Taiba’s terrorist camps in Pakistan, and six years before the Mumbai attacks on targets places cased by him.
The attacks took place over two days and left 160 people dead, including six Americans.
Headley was arrested in the US in 2009 while he was planning another operation, this time for al Qaeda. He cooperated with the authorities in return for being spared the death penalty and prosecution anywhere outside the US, namely India.
It has long been held, including by Indian intelligence, that the US has not yet told the Headley story in full; that he continued to work for some agency or the other right up to or even after the attacks.
Indian intelligence also believes the US was able to warn India about the Mumbai attacks only because of links with Headley. ProPublica quotes a US intelligence source as saying that the US tipoff on 26/11 came from a different source.
Continuing disclosures about Headley forced the Director of National Intelligence to order a full review of everything the US knew about the man last November, with a promise of sharing the findings with India. The outcome remains confidential.
“The DEA did not send David Coleman Headley to Pakistan for the purpose of collecting post-9/11 information on terrorism or drugs,” the senior DEA official told ProPublica.
But officials at other US agencies say Headley remained a DEA operative in some capacity until as late as 2005. Headley has testified that he did not stop working for the DEA until September” 2002, when he had done two stints in the Lashkar camps.
Some US officials and others involved have told ProPublica the government ended Headley’s probation for a drug conviction in November 2001 to shift him from anti-drug work to gathering intelligence in Pakistan. They say the DEA discussed him with other agencies as a potential asset because of his links to Pakistan — including a supposed high-ranking relative in the ISI.
A senior European counter-terror official who has investigated Headley in recent years was quoted by the news organisation saying, “I don’t feel we got the whole story about Headley as an informant from the’ Americans,” the official said. “I think he was a drug informant and also some other kind of an informant.”
The transition from registered law enforcement source to secret counterterrorism operative would help explain the contradictory versions. But the duration and nature of intelligence work by Headley, if it was done, remain unknown.
Headley also had a tremendous run with the FBI and other enforcement and investigative agencies. Tips about him -- by his wife, for instance, and a friend of his mother’s -- were not chased down to their logical conclusion. And he kept walking in and out of airport security despite these tips. He would be merely pulled aside as he was on a “drug lookout” list since his arrest in 1988 in Germany.
“After his heroin smuggling arrest in 1988, border agencies placed him on a “drug lookout” list and stopped him at airports in 1993, 1996 and 2001 for questioning and luggage searches,” US officials told.