Quarrelling wives, bumbling secret agents, perilous missions and one uncommonly lucky double agent. That would be an apt summation of the tale of David Coleman Headley, if he were to exist in a John le Carre novel. In reality, the picture is grim.
The latest twist in the saga of M—an American who spied for Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) in Mumbai—comes from a detailed report on his activities between 1998 and October 2009, when he was finally arrested by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The report has been published on ProPublica.org, an American investigative journalism website.
What emerges from this story are two disturbing facts. US agencies—the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and FBI —had ample information about Headley’s activities and double dealing for a long time. They chose to ignore it. Originally a DEA informant, Headley’s Pakistani origins soon attracted the attention of US intelligence agencies after the 11 September 2001 attacks. At that time, the US had a pitifully low level of human intelligence from Pakistan. Headley was considered a potential agent on the ground there. In going ahead with this option, these agencies ignored Headley’s criminal past, which included drug offences. And after he made his visits to Pakistan, they chose to ignore his sympathies for terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). In fact, the number of slips in US intelligence is so glaring that it defies belief. At one point, Headley’s Moroccan wife Faiza Outalha, went to the US embassy in Islamabad and told the officials that her husband was involved with the LeT and that he was on a secret mission and that he visited India. In the annals of intelligence failures, this one will surely rank pretty high.
What should concern Indians is that even after the US warned India, 10 months ahead of the 26/11 attacks, that the LeT was plotting to target Mumbai, little was done to prevent these attacks. This is hotly contested by India and the argument is that the intelligence was not “actionable”. This can only be called an excuse. The warning was sufficiently specific—that Mumbai was a target—for security agencies to take preventive steps. Instead, Indian security and intelligence officials gripe that the US did not tell them that Headley was “their” agent. What should concern them is their inability to act on intelligence and warnings. It is not clear if India has done something to improve its abilities in this area.
L’ affaire Headley: an intelligence failure? Tell us at email@example.com