National Security

Warnings Overlooked In Case Of American Tied To Mumbai Attacks

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David Headley, an American man known to U.S. authorities as a convicted drug dealer with ties to radical Muslims, was able to slip through the cracks to help plan the Mumbai hotel attacks of 2008. Steve Inskeep talks with Stephen Coll, head of the New America Foundation, about how it happened.


During President Obama's visit to India, an awkward issue came up. It turns out one of the men who helped plan the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai that left scores of people dead was well-known to U.S. authorities for years. He's an American named David Headley, whose father is from Pakistan. In recent years, two of Headley's former wives and a former girlfriend told U.S. authorities that he had links to a radical Muslim group. That's according to the New York Times.

David Headley was also a convicted drug dealer here in America, and the Drug Enforcement Administration sent him to Pakistan at one point to serve as an informant.

During his weekend visit to India, President Obama briefed leaders there on the case. To learn more about this episode, Steve Inskeep spoke with Steve Coll, who's written extensively about South Asia.


How do you think David Headley fell through the cracks here?

Mr. STEPHEN COLL (President, New America Foundation; Author): Well, when he became a confidential informant, his identity would have been very carefully protected by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which was running him in the field. Even in the era of post-9-11, when intelligence and law enforcement agencies were trying to share more information, about the last thing you would share with another agency would be the identity of your confidential informant in the field.

INSKEEP: You would not necessarily tell the Pakistani authorities, hey, we're running this guy. You want to be aware of this guy.

Mr. COLL: You certainly wouldn't tell the Pakistanis. You might not even tell the Central Intelligence Agency the name or some of the vetting background of an informant who's actually out there in the field.

INSKEEP: So do the Indians have a right to be upset now that it turns out that Headley helped to scout the Mumbai attacks?

Mr. COLL: They do, and they are upset. There have been reports in the Indian press about what Headley has revealed in interrogations since he was arrested again. Not only did he scout targets for Pakistani-based terrorists, but he actually met with Pakistani intelligence officers. So, in effect, he was collaborating - at least as the Indian accounts have it - with some elements of the Pakistani government.

INSKEEP: So you feel that part of the reason that Headley slipped through the cracks is simply because agencies don't talk to each other - agencies from different countries or even agencies within the United States government.

Mr. COLL: Well, it's a chronic tension in the intelligence business, especially where confidential informants in the field are involved. Your first duty, if you're running such an agent, is to keep him safe. There might be sharing of the general operation, but not the kind of background - for example, in this case - could have alerted people to the possibility that he was being radicalized or that his ex-wives and girlfriends were complaining about that possibility.

INSKEEP: Does this remind you at all of the case of the so-called underwear bomber, in which he also had relatives who warned the United States that there might be a problem here?

Mr. COLL: There, the embassy in Nigeria received a clear warning. Something broke down in the effort to follow-up on that warning. Here, it seems that the DEA - which is not, after all, in the business of vetting radical Islam, but rather in the business of making drug cases - might not have shared the information with the rest of the intelligence community because they were running this confidential informant, didn't want his identity to be revealed.

Look, human beings in a bureaucracy are going to constantly miss things. The best way to ensure that they miss as few things as possible is to have as many eyes on the problem as you can have. The tension is when you're potentially revealing the identity of an agent who could be killed if revealed. You have to limit that kind of information in the system.

INSKEEP: Steve Coll is president of the New America Foundation. His books include "Ghost Wars" and "The Bin Ladens." Thanks very much.

Mr. COLL: Thanks, Steve.

MONTAGNE: David Headley remains in U.S. custody. In return for his cooperation in a terrorism investigation, U.S. authorities have agreed not to extradite him to India.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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