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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

David Headley: another drug/terrorism informant works both sides

According to the New York Times, David Headley, drug-dealer-turned-informant-turned-terrorist, was working for the DEA while collaborating with Pakistani terrorists who eventually attacked Mumbai, India in 2008. Headley has pleaded guilty to his role in that attack, and is currently cooperating with the government in an effort to avoid the death penalty. Story here: DEA Deployed Mumbai Plotter Despite Warning. Part of India's anger over the incident stems from the fact that the DEA had been warned repeatedly by several people who knew Headley that he sympathized with terrorist groups, but, ignoring the warnings, the DEA nevertheless persuaded a court to take Headley off probation and sent him to Pakistan in 2001. From the Times:
In recent weeks, United States government officials have begun to acknowledge that Mr. Headley's path from American informant to transnational terrorist illustrates the breakdowns and miscommunications that have bedeviled them since the Sept. 11 attacks. Warnings about his radicalism were apparently not shared with the drug agency that made use of his ties in Pakistan.
The director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., began an investigation into Mr. Headley's government connections after reports last month that two of the former drug dealer's ex-wives had gone to American authorities between 2005 and 2008, before the Mumbai attacks, to say they feared he was plotting with terrorists. Combined with the earlier warning from the former girlfriend, three of the women in Mr. Headley's life reported his ties to terrorists, only to have those warnings dismissed.
An examination of Mr. Headley's story shows that his government ties ran far deeper and longer than previously known. One senior American official knowledgeable about the case said he believed that Mr. Headley was a D.E.A. informant until at least 2003, meaning that he was talking to American agencies even as he was learning to deal with explosives and small arms in terrorist training camps.
An NPR story this morning explains the breakdown in official communication by noting that the DEA would have been protective of its informant and unlikely to share his identity with other agencies, Warnings Overlooked in Case of American Tied to Mumbai Attacks. But this is only part of the story. As the Times points out, the DEA ignored the warnings precisely because Headley was a long time and valuable informant. This is the same blindspot that earlier this year led CIA officials to bring a prized informant to a base in Afghanistan, only to see him turn suicide bomber -- see Afghan suicide bomber was informant-double-agent.
This debacle illustrates the significant costs of the criminal informant compromise. First, informants avoid punishment for their own crimes--Headley served less than two years in prison although he could have faced up to nine years for distributing 15 kilograms of heroin. Second, as the government grows increasingly reliant on its criminal sources, officials come to tolerate informant crime, double-dealing and inaccuracy as a routine part of the compromise. Because the dominant culture of informant management is one of secrecy, even as between government agencies, this further weakens the process of intelligence-gathering, information-sharing, and law enforcement. Since the government maintains that it cannot conduct the war on terror without informants, it is time to rethink the rules of this risky public policy.