Headley Pleads Guilty Fueling Double Agent Speculation

David Coleman Headley, the Pakistani-American and Chicago resident accused of helping to plan the 2008 Mumbai attacks and of plotting to attack the offices of a Danish newspaper, pleaded guilty late last week to terrorism-related charges in U.S. Federal Court. But while India might be expected to be happy that at least one of those involved in plotting the most spectacular terrorist attack since September 11 – an attack that killed more than 166 people — is about to be put away for a long time (Headley is likely to receive a life sentence), Headley’s plea bargain has angered many here.

New Delhi had hoped to have Headley extradited to face terrorism-related charges in India, although how realistic that possibility ever was is unclear. More importantly, New Delhi wanted to make sure its own investigators got a chance to grill Headley at length about his contacts in India, others involved in the Mumbai plot, the workings of Lashkar-e-Toiba (the group which carried out the attacks) and any other terrorist operations of which Headley might have knowledge.

The U.S. has said it is promptly sharing any relevant intelligence it gathers with Indian agencies. The disruption of a plot to bomb the U.S., British and Indian embassies in Dhaka, Bangladesh, was disrupted late last year, allegedly based on information Headley had revealed to U.S. authorities. But following the bombing in the Indian city of Pune in January – a city where Headley made several mysterious trips on behalf of LeT — alarm bells began ringing in New Delhi and Washington that Headley is withholding some of what he knows about on-going terrorist plots.

The Indians were particularly keen to question Headley about the links between Pakistani military officials and LeT. It was believed that Headley might be able to provide the smoking gun that shows the Pakistani government had foreknowledge of the Mumbai attacks — or even helped direct them.

India has been assured by U.S. officials that Headley’s plea bargain in no way prevents it from asking him questions, but many in India suspect that their investigators will have far less access to Headley than hoped for, and, with the threat of extradition largely removed, that they will have less leverage to pry stuff out of him.

The Indians may have been hoping that had the case gone to trial, that evidence of Pakistani involvement in planning attacks against India would spill out in open court — which would significantly up the pressure on the U.S. and its European allies to take a far harder line with Islamabad.

But many in India suspect that the U.S. had absolutely no interest in seeing Headley testify in open court — and that it doesn’t have much interest in having them question Headley vigorously either. There are two reasons for this. First, the emergence of solid evidence that serving Pakistani officials helped plan the Mumbai attacks might significantly complicate U.S. relations with Islamabad at a time when the U.S. desperately needs Pakistan’s help in containing the threat from the Taliban in Afghanistan and when it has finally managed to cajole Islamabad to taking serious action against the Al Qaeda leadership operating out of the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

But the other reason is potentially even more intriguing: that the U.S. is trying to cover up the fact that Headley was actually a double agent, a revelation that would prove extremely embarrassing for the Obama Administration, especially after a Jordanian double agent managed to kill seven CIA employees in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan. The “Headley as double agent” and “the plea bargain is part of a U.S. cover-up” theme is getting a lot of play here in India, and not just among the usual conspiracy nuts.

Some Indian papers have even taken to referring to Headley without qualification as a “CIA double agent” and a “CIA agent who later shifted loyalties to the terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba,” although the CIA has taken the unusual step of denying that Headley ever worked for the agency. (Normally, they just refuse to comment on these matters.) One commentator who has been particularly exercised about Headley’s plea bargain and its negative impact on India is B. Raman, the former head of counter-terrorism for India’s Research & Analysis Wing (or RAW, it’s foreign intelligence service.) Raman thinks Headley was a “quadruple agent” – working for the DEA, the FBI, the CIA and Al Qaeda.

Now, there does seem to be quite a bit of evidence to support the theory that Headley did, in fact, work as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency. For a thorough look at this issue, see this story in The Daily Beast.

In January, when I was reporting a story on Lashkar-e-Taiba for Newsweek, I asked terrorism expert and former CIA officer Bruce Riedel whether he believed Headley was a double agent. He said it was clear that Headley had done some work in Pakistan for the DEA. He also said that he did not think the CIA would have issued such a blanket denial that Headley had ever been on its payroll if he had, in fact, been one of its assets; the agency would have just said nothing. (Now, given that Riedel formerly worked for the CIA, you can take that with whatever size grain of salt you wish.) “It is murky. There is no about it,” Riedel told me. He said one thing that would certainly come out if Headley went to trial was “when did he ever stop working with the DEA? This is a guy with multiple paychecks coming in, including one from the U.S. government and when that stopped we just don’t know. This is going to be absolutely one of the most fascinating terrorism trials to watch, partly for that reason.”

Except now, there isn’t going to be a trial. It is entirely possible that the only thing motivating Headley’s guilty plea was his own desire to avoid the death penalty and the government’s desire to avoid an expensive prosecution and to secure Headley’s on-going cooperation. But it is also true that his guilty plea means the exact nature of Headley’s relationship with the DEA — and possibly with other government agencies  — will remain a secret for a long time to come.

Jeremy Kahn is an independent journalist based in New Delhi, India, where he covers everything from politics and foreign affairs to business and the arts. In addition to The Faster Times, his work has ...read more

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