D.E.A. Deployed Mumbai Plotter Despite Warning
By GINGER THOMPSON, ERIC SCHMITT and SOUAD MEKHENNET
Published: November 7, 2010
WASHINGTON — American authorities sent David C. Headley, a small-time drug dealer and sometime informant, to work for them in Pakistan months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, despite a warning that he sympathized with radical Islamic groups, according to court records and interviews. Not long after Mr. Headley arrived there, he began training with terrorists, eventually playing a key role in the 2008 attacks that left 164 people dead in Mumbai.
The October 2001 warning was dismissed, the authorities said, as the ire of a jilted girlfriend and for lack of proof. Less than a month later, those concerns did not come up when a federal court in New York granted Mr. Headley an early release from probation so that he could be sent to work for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in Pakistan. It is unclear what Mr. Headley was supposed to do in Pakistan for the Americans.
“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,” said Luis Caso, Mr. Headley’s former probation officer.
On Sunday, while President Obama was visiting India, he briefed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the status of his administration’s investigation of Mr. Headley, including the failure to act on repeated warnings that he might be a terrorist. A senior United States official said the inquiry has concluded that while the government received warnings, it did not have strong enough evidence at the time to act on them. “Had the United States government sufficiently established he was engaged in plotting a terrorist attack in India, the information would have most assuredly been transferred promptly to the Indian government,” the official said in a statement to The New York Times. The statement did not make clear whether any American agencies would be held accountable.
In recent weeks, United States government officials have begun to acknowledge that Mr. Headley’s path from American informant to transnational terrorist illustrates the breakdowns and miscommunications that have bedeviled them since the Sept. 11 attacks. Warnings about his radicalism were apparently not shared with the drug agency that made use of his ties in Pakistan.
The director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., began an investigation into Mr. Headley’s government connections after reports last month that two of the former drug dealer’s ex-wives had gone to American authorities between 2005 and 2008, before the Mumbai attacks, to say they feared he was plotting with terrorists. Combined with the earlier warning from the former girlfriend, three of the women in Mr. Headley’s life reported his ties to terrorists, only to have those warnings dismissed.
An examination of Mr. Headley’s story shows that his government ties ran far deeper and longer than previously known. One senior American official knowledgeable about the case said he believed that Mr. Headley was a D.E.A. informant until at least 2003, meaning that he was talking to American agencies even as he was learning to deal with explosives and small arms in terrorist training camps.
The review raises new questions about why the Americans missed warning signs that a valued informant was becoming an important figure in radical Islamic groups, and whether some officials chose to look the other way rather than believe the complaints about him. The October 2001 warning from the girlfriend was first reported Friday by ProPublica, the independent investigative news operation, and published in The Washington Post.
Fuller details of how the government handled the matter were provided to The Times by officials who did not want to be quoted discussing a continuing inquiry. They disclosed that the F.B.I. actually talked to Mr. Headley about the girlfriend, and he told them she was unreliable. They said that while he seemed to have a philosophical affinity for some groups, there was no evidence that he was plotting against the United States. Also influencing the handling of the case, they said, was that he had been a longtime informant.
The Indian government has been outspoken in its concerns that the United States overlooked repeated warnings about Mr. Headley’s terrorist activities because of his links to both American law enforcement as well as to officials in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate — a key ally of the United States in the fight against terrorism.
Bruce O. Riedel, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution and a former C.I.A. officer, said the Indians were right to ask, “ ‘Why weren’t alarms screaming?’ ”
Mr. Headley, 50, born in the United States to a Pakistani diplomat and Philadelphia socialite, has pleaded guilty in connection with the Mumbai plot and a thwarted attack against a Danish newspaper that published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. As he has many times before, he is cooperating with the authorities, this time hoping to avoid the death penalty. Officials of the D.E.A., which has a long history with Mr. Headley, declined to discuss their relationship with him. The C.I.A. and the F.B.I. said that Mr. Headley had never worked with them. Privately, the agencies point fingers at each other....
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