No media access to FBI questioning him on mystery over his career as U.S. anti-drugs spy

Though a Chicago court has granted media access to a part of 26/11 conspirator David Coleman Headley's interrogation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the videotape that could offer a dramatic insight into the build-up to the carnage will remain out of sight.

FBI agents, sources in the Indian investigation of 26/11 say, had questioned the Lashkar-e-Taiba intelligence operative about his parallel career as a spy for the United States' Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) — a bizarre relationship that may have helped to protect the Pakistani-American jihadist as he prepared the ground for the attacks.

The full interrogation tapes were not, however, presented before jurors in Headley's trial — which means all material, bar two brief clips played in open court at the insistence of defence lawyers, could remain classified for decades.

ProPublica, a leading investigative journalism website and the renowned public broadcaster Frontline, had moved court seeking access to the clips for a documentary scheduled to be broadcast on November 22. The FBI resisted even this limited disclosure, but the judge accepted the argument that the contents of the clips had already been reported.

Sebastian Rotella, of ProPublica, told that “the brief conversations recorded in the videos do not reveal new or spectacular information, but they give an up-close glimpse into a secret world.”

The glimpse is tantalizing — almost infuriatingly so.

Headley's complex relationship with the DEA dates back to at least 1984, when he began smuggling heroin from Pakistan to the U.S. His life as a drug-runner and terrorist played out against the backdrop of his troubled personal life.

His parents, Philadelphia socialite Serill Headley and Pakistani diplomat Syed Salim Gilani divorced soon after they moved to Islamabad in 1960, and Mrs. Headley returned to Philadelphia; her son followed her in 1977. He rebelled against his mother's heavy drinking and multiple sexual relationships by expressing a commitment to neo-conservative Islam — and trafficking narcotics.

In 1984, he travelled to Pakistan's north-west with his childhood friend and co-accused, Tahawwur Rana, to pick up a heroin consignment. Rana's Pakistani military identification, Headley said at the trial in Chicago, made it less likely that their car would be searched.

The DEA, though, caught up with Headley twice — in 1988 and 1997. The second time, he agreed to work as a DEA informant in return for a reduced sentence. Following the events of 9/11, he was also asked to infiltrate terror groups. Headley was thus a U.S. agent when he joined the Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2001. By the United States' account to the Indian authorities, he was deactivated as an agent the following year.

Multiple warnings

There are several good reasons, though, to wonder whether this claim is true.

In 2005, Portia Gilani, the first of Headley's wives, called the FBI in the wake of an assault by her husband. She told the FBI that Headley had made 21 trips to Pakistan and bragged about the several combat and intelligence courses he underwent with the Lashkar-e-Taiba. In the fraught post-9/11 climate in the U.S., authorities have often detained individuals on far less suspicion — but there is nothing to show that Headley was even seriously investigated.

Portia Gilani, a Canadian who worked as a make-up artist, eventually won an immigrant visa to the U.S. under a law, protecting abused spouses of the country's citizens. The New York police, though, did not prosecute — which suggests that some pressure from the DEA might have weighed in on Headley's side.

Later, in 2006, the U.S. obtained fresh evidence of Headley's terror links. Lahore-based Moroccan medicine student Faiza Outhalla knocked on the U.S. Embassy's doors with a detailed account of her then-boyfriend's activities with the Lashkar, after he reneged on a commitment to marry her.

“Indirectly,” she told last year, “they told me to get lost.”

Ironically, the Lahore police demonstrated more interest — incarcerating Mr. Headley for eight days on a complaint from Ms. Outhalla. He was bailed out by the father of his second wife, Chicago-based Shazia Gilani. Early the next year, Ms. Outhalla became his third wife — and accompanied Headley on at least one reconnaissance mission to Mumbai.

India's intelligence services suspect these multiple warnings were ignored because the Special Operations Division of the DEA, a super-secret covert operations organisation responsible for the arrests of international arms dealers Viktor Bout and Monzer al-Kassar, continued its relationship with Headley after his official termination as an agent.

As the DEA's counter-terrorism mandate is restricted to matters linked to drugs, officials could have failed to understand the evidence in their possession.

In 2006, India's National Investigation Agency found, Headley made contact with Peshawar-based narcotics baron Niyamat Shah. Shah was the son of a contact he made during his heroin-trafficking days. The deal led to an arrangement between Shah and the Lashkar to smuggle weapons into India — exactly the kinds of terrorism-narcotics connections the DEA has a special interest in.

The second possibility is that Headley's activities were being monitored, but tolerated in the interests of generating further intelligence.

U.S. intelligence services passed on at least two precise warnings of an impending attack on Mumbai to India; some investigators believe they were based on a covert surveillance of Headley's communication.

The true scope of his role in the attack, this hypothesis holds, was only discovered after his eventual arrest.

Either way, the truth is on videotape — though it could be years before it is seen.