Gimme Headley: NSA offers a bad example of effective US surveillance

What were they thinking when they offered up the one brown-eyed, one green-eyed David Headley as an example of how US surveillance programs have thwarted terror attacks?

I’m referring to NSA (National Security Agency) Director Keith Alexander’s assertion on Wednesday that secret (but now not-so-secret) surveillance programs helped US officials track and nab terror suspects such as Headley.

A Pakistani-American with a heterochromia iridium condition that accounts for his rather sinister one-brown, one-green-eye combination, Headley is serving time in a US jail for, among other things, helping plan the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed more than 160 people.

In his testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday, NSA director Alexander warned that the latest leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden had “jeopardized” security.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we will lose capability as a result of this and that not only in the US, but those allies that we have helped, will no longer be as safe as they were two weeks ago,” he said.

I almost choked on my coffee when I heard that one.

Allies that we have helped?

Try the reverse, my friend.

How about allies that have helped us? How about allies that we failed to help despite our extensive, hi-tech snooping programs – allies, incidentally, that lost more than 160 citizens in attacks we failed to thwart?

And try this for good measure: allies we pissed off because, when they requested access to terror planners who have killed their citizens, we behaved so arrogant, overbearing and…frankly…American.

The crap we yak and tweet and post

Before we go any further with the heterochromed Headley, a brief note about the latest leak-orama drama unfolding on the airwaves.

For some reason, I can’t seem to get my knickers in a twist over this one.

Of course I believe the infamous 2001 Patriot Act needs an update. I also believe we need a debate on security v. privacy and I thank all those experts, civil society groups, activists and lawmakers working to get the balance right. 

But me, I’m not losing sleep over whether US security snoops are pouring over my emails and tweets and posts. I can barely keep up with the bullshit spewing on social media sites. And I simply lack the requisite amounts of self-importance or paranoia to imagine the nonsense I yak or tweet or post is that interesting or critical to national security snoops.

For Christ’s sake, these guys fail to pick up leads that foreign governments provide them. Remember that Russian alert on Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnev? Now they have to deal with all the crap folks across the world are bitching and moaning about? Poor guys!

When the latest leaks started to drip, I found myself groaning. If you cover the Middle East and Pakistan, chances are, you’re hearing some pretty advanced conspiracy theories about Uncle Sam. If you live in France, there’s a disproportionate number of expat Americans who have been convinced for decades that Big Brother USA is watching them.

Oh boy, I thought, the loons are going to freak out now.

British intel minions with stiff upper – and not loose - lips

So, I’ve been following this story in pretty detached mode until the Headley case raised its head.

Honestly, if the US security establishment is putting up a defense of its surveillance programs, that’s a bad one to air.

For one, it was British intelligence that enabled Headley’s arrest in October 2009 at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport as he was trying to board a flight to Pennsylvania en route to Pakistan.

How do I know this? Because the British daily, The Telegraph, said so – in a November 2009 report.

Do I know any details about this tip? No, because British intelligence minions have stiff upper - and not loose - lips.

US intelligence officials however talk – and thank god. Here’s what an unnamed US counterterrorism official told the ProPublica site, which has extensively covered the case, back in 2010: “Headley was an unknown until not long before his arrest…He came to light because of the British. They knew him only as ‘David the American.’ [The British] MI5 [security service] detected that he was in contact with a group in the UK that they were watching.”

“David the American” Headley was born to a Pakistani father and an American socialite mother and has a life story worthy of a thriller. Here’s a good New York Times profile of the man with feet (and eyes, I may add) in the East and the West.

His capture, as this post in US historian Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog, notes, was due to standard intelligence sharing - not data mining.

Headley had successfully surveyed the sites of the Mumbai 2008 attacks and was busy cooking up a plan to strike Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten for publishing incendiary Prophet Mohammed cartoons when he was nabbed.

His capture did indeed thwart any attacks in Denmark. But if anyone has a footprint in as international, spectacular and deadly an attack as the 2008 Mumbai assault, I would hope the security services of various countries are on him.

The Indo-US “blame the ISI” choral

The problem with Headley though is that he had quite a bit of very murky contacts with the security services of some countries.

While Headley received a 35-year sentence by a Chicago court for his role in the Mumbai attacks and the Danish newspaper plot, the 30,000-page case file in Chicago remains wrapped in secrecy, as ProPublica’s Sebastian Rotella has noted.

But what we do know is that Headley was, at some point, a paid informant for the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), the US anti-narcotic agency. Years later, when he visited Pakistan and got involved in planning the Mumbai attacks, Headley apparently had a handler in the ISI, the Pakistani secret service, who has been named only as “Major Iqbal”.

The Mumbai attacks were of course conducted by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants based in Pakistan. But Indian officials have long maintained that the ISI played a role in the attacks, which the Pakistanis deny, and the Indians dismiss in a familiar dance between the two arch foes.

Washington of course has been singing from the same hymn sheet as the Indians, accusing the ISI of secretly aiding Islamist militant groups. The song got particularly loud after the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden in an Abbottabad house under the noses of the Pakistani security services.

You would think all this harmony in the Indo-US “blame the ISI” choral would result in some crack security cooperation between Washington and New Delhi.

If you did, you’re wrong.

Still seeking Headley – and his accomplice
For years now, the Indian media has featured headlines such as “US rules out extradition of Headley” and “Is Indian request for Headley access falling on deaf ears?

Amid categorical US refusals to extradite Headley to India, senior Indian officials have publicly alleged that the Pakistani-American terror planner was a double agent – a charge Washington denies.

As anger and suspicions mounted in India, the US finally granted Indian security officials access to question Headley for ten days in June 2010. That helped ease the strains to some extent, but the diplomatic dance between Washington and New Delhi over Headley continues. India is still seeking additional access to Headley as well as his jailed accomplice, Pakistani-Canadian Tahawwur Rana, and Headley’s US-based wife and girlfriend.

After all these years and all this talk of security cooperation, India is still singing the old song: Gimme Headley – and his accomplice.

So, when senior US security officials such as Alexander and James Clapper, director of national intelligence, talk about the NSA’s surveillance helping to thwart Hedley, try telling that to the families of more than 160 people killed in Mumbai.

And when Alexander talks about the “allies that we have helped,” British intel minions are probably stiffening those upper lips and their Indian counterparts are likely screaming, "Help!"


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Interesting article Leela..I presume you do hope to return to the 'land of the Free'??!! It is a very balanced and informative piece and concurs with what many Europeans think of the Americans and their supposed Security concerns. I look forward to your next blog and to further comments on this one. Best wishes..Alan

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