The Director of National Intelligence will review the handling of David Coleman Headley, the former U.S. informant and confessed plotter of the Mumbai attacks in 2008, intelligence officials said Tuesday.
The decision by Adm. James Clapper to undertake the review comes after a ProPublica report in the Washington Post last week that Headley’s wife warned the FBI about his terrorist ties three years before the attacks that killed 166 people, officials said. The director’s office will also examine a 2007 incident, reported by the New York Times, in which another wife of Headley told officials at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan that she thought he was a terrorist.
The separate warnings to different agencies of the government raise the question of whether the intelligence community properly synthesized the information it was receiving about Headley.
A federal law enforcement official said Tuesday that the State Department did report information about a 2007 warning from Headley’s Moroccan wife after she met twice with officials of the State Dept.’s diplomatic security bureau and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Pakistan. Officials have determined that the diplomatic security officer sent a written report about the wife’s allegations to the FBI, CIA and DEA, said the federal law enforcement official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
What happened after that will be a focus of Clapper’s inquiry.
“Director Clapper has initiated an after-action-review to determine lessons learned,” said Jamie Smith, the DNI’s spokeswoman. “Reviews of this nature are an important part of improving existing processes. Since these events occurred, advancements in information sharing systems have been made by applying the lessons learned from these reviews.”
Officials declined to provide further specifics but the review is certain to examine the response of federal agencies to the warnings and the extent to which the enigmatic Headley’s work as a U.S. informant overlapped with his activity as a militant of the Lashkar-i-Taiba terrorist group.
“These events happened some time ago and given recent press reports he initiated an after action review to look into whether any further improvements on the information sharing system need to be made,” a federal official said, speaking on background.
Headley was arrested last year, 11 months after the Mumbai attacks, and has pleaded guilty to doing terrorist reconnaissance in that case and a foiled al Qaeda plot in Denmark.
The official version of Headley’s odyssey contains gaps and mysteries. Federal officials have confirmed that he was a DEA informant when he began training with Lashkar in early 2002. But it is not clear when his relationship with the U.S. government ended, if it evolved from anti-drug work to intelligence-gathering, and if his status as an informant affected the federal inquiries into the tips from his wives.
Moreover, some U.S. and Indian anti-terror officials believe that American agencies monitored Headley in 2008, gathering intelligence that played a role in at least three U.S. warnings to India about a Lashkar plot to attack Mumbai. Headley’s links to suspected Pakistani intelligence officials who helped direct and fund his reconnaissance intensify suspicions that he was a double agent or rogue agent.
Accounts differ about whether Headley was an informant when his New York wife contacted the task force after a domestic dispute that resulted in his arrest in 2005.
One federal official said Headley stopped working for the DEA before the New York tip at some point between 2003 and 2005.
Meanwhile, a former senior law enforcement official said the DEA “closed” Headley as an informant “well before” the Mumbai attacks. But the former senior official could not say if the businessman-turned-militant was still working for the drug agency in 2005 or when he scouted targets for Lashkar in Mumbai between 2006 and 2008.
Neither scenario precludes another possibility, according to U.S. and Indian anti-terror officials: that Headley shifted from providing information on drug trafficking to an intelligence mission. The DEA works alongside intelligence agencies on task forces and shares informants, officials say. Because of Headley’s language skills and his contacts in the elite and underworld in South Asia, a spy agency may have used him — on its own or alongside the DEA — to gather information on militants in Pakistan, officials say.
The intelligence review will also examine the details of the warnings from Headley’s wives. Federal officials have said that investigators took the warnings seriously, but could not tie Headley to a specific plot or group because the allegations were too general.
A U.S. anti-terror official and a law enforcement document describing the initial phone tip from Headley’s wife to the New York task force made it clear that she reported his “ties to the Lashker-i-Taiba terrorist organization” and frequent travel to Pakistan.
A New York Police detective working for the task force conducted three interviews with the wife. Another federal investigator participated in the second interview, according to a person close to the case.
The wife described Headley’s accounts of his experiences at Lashkar’s mountain training complex near Muzaffarabad, a sprawling facility that had already been identified by convicted American and European terrorists in previous cases, according to officials and the person close to the case. Headley’s wife recounted his recruitment, fund-raising and procurement of equipment for Lashkar starting in the late 1990s and offered to show the investigators his e-mails because she had learned the password to his account, according to the person close to the case.
The investigators did not look at the e-mails, according to the person close to the case. But they told the wife that the FBI had a file on Headley. They asked about information including his bank accounts and credit cards, according to the person close to the case.
The wife told investigators that Headley boasted that his training with Lashkar was part of a secret anti-terror mission for the DEA and FBI, which he said had “joined forces.”
“I thought he was working for you,” the wife told the JTTF investigators, according to the person close to the case.
Federal officials say Headley was never an FBI informant, however.
In an overseas development, news reports Tuesday asserted that Headley’s confession implicated officials of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) in the Mumbai massacre. The reports in the Indian press and Associated Press were based on a leaked summary of Headley’s statement to Indian investigators who questioned him in Chicago this summer.
An Indian-anti-terror official confirmed the general accuracy of the reports, which said Headley described a close relationship between high-ranking ISI officers and Lashkar terror bosses. Headley identified ISI officers who helped train, direct and fund him as he scouted targets in Mumbai, according to the official.
Moreover, Headley’s terrorist scouting took him across India and around the globe to locales including Tokyo and Bangkok, according to Indian and U.S. officials.
“He’s traveled the world looking at targets like Indian embassies, other things they might want to hit,” a senior U.S. anti-terror official said.