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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