Mumbai Terrorist was American Intelligence Asset

This story of David C. Headley, an American intelligence asset turned jihadist sympathizer and Mumbai terrorist has been bothering me for weeks since I read about it in Pro Publica, the not-for-profit online investigative journal. The more I read about this case, the more I believe something is fundamentally broken in our intelligence community. The the old boys culture of individual intelligence agencies mixed with the hubris of those who think they know everything will be their undoing, and ours.

In today's New York Times is a summary article on the investigation, and the significant lack of communication between intelligence agencies and the DEA. I am particularly struck by the fact that three people came forward independently to warn that Headley might be involved with terrorists, yet no one chose to act.
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.
I cannot but help to think that had these been three golfing buddies, three guys from the neighborhood bar, or three members of a pick up basketball team, the intelligence officers might have given more weight to their concerns. Instead, it was three women (a girlfriend and two ex-wives) and the jilted lover theory was too cozy an explanation not to be embraced and the concerns dismissed. As a bare minimum, they should have sent it up the chain of command and shared the concerns with the DEA.

Our intelligence and security agencies, led by the Department of Homeland Security, will violate a citizen's right to privacy and kick down a door with little provocation, but act on a tip from three women about their terrorist husband/boyfriend and they fail to act.

Something is broken. Though I doubt the Director of National Intelligence's investigation can change anything, I wish him luck. Ultimately, I fear nothing will ever change, and because of that we are less safe than everyone wants to believe.

Comments

James said…
There are several major issues and problems you've pointed out, Jason. The biggest, is the culture of each agency; CIA not taking threats seriously; the same thinking killed 6 agents in a suicide bombing (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/20/cia-concerns-afghanistan-suicide-bomber) They thought they had a big informant; they'd score a major intelligence win. Their careers were made. They were doing something for America! They ignored the warning from a Jordanian Colleague (Jordan has perhaps one of the best intelligence services in the world, close to Israel's), allowed al-Balawi onto base without a search, and he blew himself up. The problem becomes, how do we enable agents to have the attitude necessary to do their job, but act cautiously enough not to allow these things to happen. How do we change the culture of the CIA, a 60 year old organization that is by definition, secret.

The majority of the actionable intelligence the CIA receives on training camps and Taliban bases in Pakistan comes from a network of Pashtun informants. Mostly, these men are guns for hire and are unscrupulous to say the least. They've been tied to Hamid Karzai's brother, who is known for running guns and narcotics. And yet, we've had close to 90 successful drone attacks this year, severely limiting safe houses and logistical posts for our enemies. So, working with bad people is necessary, and, they can be controlled to some extent. It's just inconsistant, to say the least.

Interagency communication and the DNI are huge problems. Mostly, because no one has to listen to the DNI since he has no real power. He can tell people what to do, but he can't punish them for not listening. The reason his post is so weak? Thank the Pentagon. Ike was right.

DHS is a separate issue, and I think should be abolished. Turn it into a completely new, intelligence only agency that focuses solely on global terrorist threats but is given latitude to monitor foreign nationals in country with known affiliations and works with NSA, CIA, FBI. Let's call it CTU. Don't give it law enforcement powers to keep us civil rights people happy, but allow it surveillance capabilities, etc.
Sara said…
In addition to the problems James mentioned above (and YES CTU but no law enforcement so go civil rights), I think that your point about the gender problems in the intelligence community is extremely relevant. I haven't read all of the CIA exposes that have recently hit the presses, but I also haven't heard about the gender issues being discussed in any of the "buzz" about them.