Rumors of David Headley, rogue CIA asset

David Headley was convicted on heroin smuggling charges in 1998, and the available evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the following year he did undercover surveillance work in Pakistan for the DEA in exchange for a reduced sentence. During his time in Pakistan in 1999, his surveillance target was reportedly a drug gang based in Afghanistan/Pakistan. This has given rise to speculation among Indian officials that Headley’s work for the US government may have gone beyond the DEA. The speculation holds that DEA may have passed Headley on to the CIA, given his experience in Pakistan, and the CIA in turn used Hadley to infiltrate Lashkar-e-Taiba. These rumors do not contend that the Mumbai attacks were thus a CIA operation; rather, they suggest that Headley had “gone rogue” by 2006 and thrown his lot in with LeT completely. Gerald Posner has a piece in the Daily Beast that does a good job of showing the factual backdrop that fueled this speculation.

I should say at the outset that the rumors are by no means completely outlandish, but I do not think they’re correct. I spoke with a senior US intelligence official today who works on Afghanistan/Pakistan, and told me unequivocally that Headley was never a CIA asset. Though I assess this source to be extremely trustworthy, most people quite reasonably do not put too much stock in the denials of unnamed officials, so let me provide a couple of reasons why I believe his denial to be correct.

First, it isn’t clear when this speculation holds that Headley was passed along to the CIA to be used as an asset. The Posner piece makes clear that this could not have occurred before November 2001, when Headley’s attorney and an assistant US attorney jointly applied to have Headley’s supervised release terminated three years early. But the unfortunate fact (which speaks to the US intelligence community’s blind spots) is that LeT was at that point not considered a top priority. LeT was not designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department until Dec. 26, 2001, following the attack on the Indian parliament. Even after that, it wasn’t until 2003-2004 that the intelligence community was truly focused on LeT. This may create timeline problems for some of this speculation that in turn give rise to additional questions (i.e., why would Headley have an incentive to start working for the CIA in 2003 if he had already been released from prison?).

Second, the speculation may assume a degree of interagency cooperation that generally does not exist. Most US government agencies are quite hesitant to turn their assets over to the CIA, because they then lose any kind of access to those assets. Beyond that, the DEA and CIA have very different mandates, and penetrating a drug gang is far easier than penetrating LeT. This was particularly true when LeT had a closer working relationship with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), and the ISI’s counterintelligence services helped to shield LeT from penetration. But even now Pakistani jihadist groups are careful about providing access to outsiders, something made clear by this Wall Street Journal article. So it isn’t clear that Headley would be easily passed from the DEA to the CIA.

These are two reasons supporting my source’s unequivocal statement that Headley did not work for the CIA. As I said earlier, I trust the official with whom I spoke, but let me make one final point. If Headley were a CIA asset, we will know very, very soon. This is because Headley faces some serious criminal charges, and almost certainly is being threatened with the prospect of extradition to India — something he does not want under any circumstances. If Headley had ever worked for the CIA, his lawyers would present this fact, and soon, as a sort of entrapment defense: arguing that the present charges are unfair because the US government initially made him reach out to LeT. If he never raises such a defense, hopefully these rumors will be short-lived.

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  • T Ruth says:

    Apparently, the 26/11 Bombay attack of 2008 was originally scheduled for September, 2008.
    The FBI is supposed to have tipped off Indian Intelligence of this specific threat incl info that this was to be a sea-based attack and the Taj hotel, which sits 10yds away from a pier, was a target. (Perfectly conceivable that this info was gleaned from Headley-Gilani on whatever basis.)
    The bigger question therefore is what did India do with this tip-off, what did it not do and why?

  • naresh says:

    Two more things –
    1. Americans are not allowing Indian investigators access to Headley. It is very surprising because in the past, both countries have allowed access to each other on a reciprocal basis in terrorism related cases. It is even more interesting that Indians are not insisting on it. Perhaps, higher ups in the two countries are trying to avoid an embarrassing situation.
    2. Despite being of Pakistani origin, Headley was given Indian Visa without the security clearance because of Ambassadorial override. And that Indian ambassador still has a job.
    There is enough evidence that it was Pakistani military and Afshaq Kiyani that planned the Mumbai attack years ago and LeT executed it. But is still very likely that Headley was a double agent for LeT and CIA. And Americans are no longer happy with him. Otherwise, why the Americans would not allow Indians access to Headley and why the Indians would not insist on it?

  • Render says:

    If Headley was a CIA asset between ’03 and ’08 somebody with a (D) after their names would have already leaked his name to the NYTimes who would have already blamed the whole thing on George W Bush while mentioning Blackwater’s name repeatedly and we’d have already known all about it…

  • T Ruth says:

    “There is enough evidence that it was Pakistani military and Afshaq Kiyani that planned the Mumbai attack years ago”
    WHERE is it?
    Sorry to suggest that your comment sounds incredible and rabid.
    And “years ago”? You mean before Kayani took over command?
    I could believe an army connection but the way you put it cheapens your whole comment. And btw the visa override was not on headley, it was his accomplice.
    The right q to ask on headley’s visa is why did the embassy not figure out the change of name from gillani?
    And if the tip-off on a Sept attack came from an US agency, whichever agency, why didn’t that agency warn the indians of this name-change business so the indians could put him on a watch-list.
    The indians would probably have messed up anyway, incompetent as they are.

  • naresh says:

    My ‘internet post’ was speculative and not ‘evidence’ meant to be admissible in a court of law. But here is the Sabahuddin’s confession that forms the basis of my speculation.
    Sabahuddin’s confession says that he met Zaki Lakhvi, the LeT handler for Mumbai and several ISI officers. Kayani was DG ISI from 2004 to 2007, which is when Kasab got his commando training from ex-military officers within military compound. He also claims to have met ISI officers. But then, you are perhaps looking for NY Times article as evidence that LeT is merely a loose extension of ISI and that ISI is a very disciplined organization which plans things top down.

  • T Ruth:
    The U.S. did indeed send a warning to Indian officials prior to the Mumbai attacks, but you very much overstate the specificity of the information. The U.S. warning should not be regarded as actionable intelligence that could have prevented the Mumbai massacre. If you recall the “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” President’s Daily Brief that was issued before 9/11, the warning given to the Indians was similar in that it was right in its broad outlines, while also utterly insufficient in itself to thwart the coming plot.

  • T Ruth says:

    Some excerpts from BBC
    “The inquiry also noted that at least six alerts were received between August 2006 and April 2008 about attackers taking the sea route.”
    “Tragically, the Taj and the Oberoi managements did not implement certain important security advice given by the police because of their own policy perspective as hospitality industry.”
    Perhaps i jumped the gun about the FBI being the source, but i think this is easy to deduce.

  • T Ruth says:

    Naresh, thanks, and i see where you are coming from. Apologies if i was a bit terse.
    Has sahibuddin been charged since that confession, specifically re 26/11?
    in the end its true one can’t put anything past the isi/let combine even though i would hold out for the picture to develop before levelling anything directly at kayani.
    The key is for the fbi and india to cooperate fully here and i believe they will particularly with the warmth that singh and obama share.

  • An INdian says:

    We need to know full details about LeT-ISI-CIA nexus here. FBI is not telling full truth. Without extradition, how will we know the level of partnership between LeT-ISI-CIA?
    It is hard to believe that this guy worked for US Govt for last 10-15 years and traveled/emailed to/from Pakistan and other hotspots and nobody in CIA/FBI knew a thing about him. Even FBI can’t provide a voice /email sample of this guy to Indians? Amazing!!!

  • Bing says:

    Considering that 1/3 of the ISI’s budget comes from CIA funds, what can we further deduce from this?

  • Abheek says:

    TRuth Says
    The indians would probably have messed up anyway, incompetent as they are.
    Thats a gross statement to make Mr. Ruth ..pls. look at your backyard first .. one single attack has claimed ~ 4000 American lives and the man behind it is still not found …compare this to our intelligence …we know who did it .. now only if US cooperated and thought of taking on terrorism as one global problem .. instead of bulldozing rest of the world by their ‘u r with us or against us’ rehotic, we could have had those rascals hanged for sure.

  • T Ruth says:

    Abheek, here is an excerpt from the Pradhan Committee report
    It said there was “total confusion in the processing of intelligence alerts at the level of state government”.
    That sounds like incompetence to me, gross or not.
    Here is the link once more to a BBC article to which i referred above
    You can also dig out a NYT article around the first anniversary which quotes a number of Bombay residents who make a similar assertion.
    By the way, i think the way you drag in the 9/11 comparison here, to be pretty “gross”, superficial and insensitive in particular to Americans, of which i am not one. Further your comment about US cooperation and Bush’s quote is so passe.
    So basically, be careful before you jump to conclusions and calm down, even if you are finding it difficult to be a little self-critical, as many of your countrymen are (ie being self-critical about india’s internal security arrangements).

  • T Ruth:
    I’m not skeptical of the Ram Pradhan Committee report. My comment was a response to your first one, that the FBI “is supposed to have tipped off Indian Intelligence of this specific threat.” I interpreted this as suggesting that the information coming from the U.S. was actionable intelligence (i.e. the kind that Indian authorities could have used to prevent the Mumbai attacks), when it was far more general than much of the news reporting suggests. On re-reading, I realize that your comment may not have been making this assumption.
    The Ram Pradhan Committee report makes important points about the reactions of Indian police: their confusion in processing intelligence alerts, lack of increased coastal security, poor police equipment, etc. Hopefully the report’s findings will be used to significantly increase Indian policing capabilities.

  • Abheek says:

    T Ruth – My objection is to you calling us Indians √≠ncompetent’. That is general swipe – which is apparant from your statement. It is also easy to do post-mortem and play the blame game, whether it is India or any other country. And talking about failure of intelligence – yes it has been and as a Mumbaikar I don’t how much safer we are compared to last year. But then with Pakistan and China as neighbours (!) with whom we share ~10000 KM of porous border , the job of Security forces is much difficult, compared to say US or Europe

  • T Ruth says:

    The info from US intel to Indian intel WAS in all likelihood ACTIONABLE. So yes, that is my point. The only issue is that the date of action was changing.
    This indeed is the way this story is developing. Here’s an excerpt from the Economic Times, India’s well-repected daily pink (not the stuff that Ravi Rikhye loves to refer to ;-), ie financial:
    “It has now become amply clear that Headley was the source of information behind US agencies’ alert to India in September 2008, warning of a LeT attack on Mumbai through the sea route. Investigations into the 26/11 conspiracy have confirmed that the LeT operation was originally planned for September, but had to be aborted twice due to logistical glitches. The 10 gunmen finally set sail from Karachi on November 22, 2008.
    Agencies here suspect that Headley – working as a double agent for the CIA as well as the LeT though his loyalties had lately shifted more towards the latter – may have tipped off the US about the exact Mumbai targets. However, the Americans, in their bid to protect the source of their information, may have chosen to merely share selective details of the 26/11 plot, naming only the Taj Mahal hotel and CST among the potential targets and identifying the sea as their chosen infiltration route.”
    Read on at
    The writing is (more than) on the wall. Suggest you re-consider!
    I stay with my remark of Dec 11
    “The FBI is supposed to have tipped off Indian Intelligence of this specific threat incl info that this was to be a sea-based attack and the Taj hotel, which sits 10yds away from a pier, was a target. (Perfectly conceivable that this info was gleaned from Headley-Gilani on whatever basis.)”

  • T Ruth:
    Your information does not lead me to reconsider. First, journalists are not experts in the subject on which they are reporting as a rule, and press reporting is frequently inaccurate. Think of the reporting on the recent Adam Gadahn video in which he denied that jihadists were responsible for Muslim deaths: CNN inaccurately reported that he apologized for jihadis killing other Muslims. In this case we don’t have access to primary sources except in broad outlines, which poses a problem for our discussion. My information comes primarily from discussions with members of the U.S. intelligence community who are familiar with the warnings that were issued to India, and secondarily from press accounts.
    Second, from what I can tell the Economic Times piece that you quote is wrong in virtually all of its particulars. Though the Indian press is running with the storyline of Gilani as a CIA “double agent,” I don’t think it’s accurate for the reasons outlined in this blog entry. When the story claims that it is “amply clear” that Headley provided warnings on the Mumbai attacks, that makes me question the reporter’s ability to process information at every level.
    Third, U.S. intelligence sources tell me that although there was indeed information about the sea route and the Taj Mahal hotel, that was only one of a large number of hotels named as possible targets. The information that attackers might approach Mumbai by sea is only marginally more helpful than the “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” President’s Daily Brief issued before 9/11 that said al-Qaeda was interested in hijacking airplanes. That proved to be the exact means of attack, but could that information have actually prevented 9/11 in itself?
    Let’s not read too much into press reporting that sounds impressive, but may be based on a gross misinterpretation of facts.


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