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'We may get some access to Headley, no extradition'

April 13, 2010 17:46 IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President Barrack Obama's meeting in Washington on Sunday has not helped India much in getting access to alleged Lashkar-e-Tayiba operative David Coleman Headley. In view of President Obama's lukewarm response the issue is getting more complicated as India needs to file a legal case against Headley for his involvement in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks.

The National Investigative Agency, the newly-formed outfit which is investigating terrorism-related cases, is preparing a charge-sheet against Headley in the 26/11 case. To strengthen the charge-sheet Indian agencies need not only proof of his many terror reconnaissance trips to India but also definitive proof like e-mails, telephonic conversations, photographs and videos if any.

India wants all the information that Headley has given to US sleuths which can come through if India gets access to Headley or can manage to convince the US establishment to extradite him to India, which seems unlikely.

A S Dulat, former special director of Intelligence Bureau, India's internal intelligence agency and former chief of Research and Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, explains the issues at stake in an in-depth conversation with rediff.com's Sheela Bhatt.

You must have seen many such under-cover operatives. What kind of profile of Headley emerges in your mind?

My understanding is solely based on newspaper reports. I don't have first hand information. What I understand is that he was a drug addict at one time. He was picked up by the US Drug Enforcement Agency. Then, most likely, he worked for them. I think, somewhere along the line they discovered that he has good contacts in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It seems that after 9/11, the Americans showed greater interest in him as a possible deep-penetration agent. I think, it's quite clear that he has been working for an American agent who must have encouraged him to go to Pakistan and penetrate the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and other terrorist outfits. That's why he is talking about attending so many terror training camps 2003 onwards. Interestingly, he also attended some course on counter-surveillance.

After 2005 or so, the story shifts to India where he worked for the LeT. We Indians know what the Lashkar is all about. Obviously, he was interacting with Inter Services Intelligence officials as well. In the investigations it's come out that he was very much involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. He was taking photographs, video and he was also given the task of suggesting a landing site for the terrorists. He was very much part of the whole thing.

The interesting thing for us is that even after 26/11 he visited India. To me the most mysterious part of the story is why did Americans arrest Headley? Obviously they knew what is happening. US had warned us about 26/11. The information had come from the Americans that sabotage could take place from the sea in September 2008. It happened in November.

If Headley was their man he must have told them about it. It's a complex kind of intelligence operation. Somewhere along the line it must have gone out of control of the American agent/handler or they must have thought that this man is now too hot to

handle because he is directly involved in 26/11. He is really the kingpin in the whole thing that's why he has been arrested. That's how I see the story, so far.

Do you think Headley's agent or agents in the Central Intelligence Agency/Federal Bureau of Investigations/DEA were not at all aware of the 26/11 plan before it happened?

It's difficult to say how much they knew. Here we should not jump to conclusions. It is also possible that Headley shared with his handler the broad outline of what LeT was doing and kept out his own involvement. In a classic sense Headley was a double agent. That's quite possible. Note another interesting thing. How he changed his name from Dawood Gilani to Headley. I feel after his intense and frequent interactions with the Pakistanis, mentally, he again, became, Dawood Gilani.

It's possible that for Americans he was Headley but under his skin he was Gilani. At some stage, the Americans figured out that this guy is dangerous and he knows more than he let on. That's why they picked him up.

What you are saying is this: India should believe that American agent or agents were so incompetent that they did not know what their mole is doing, where he is flying? After all, they must be paying him as well.

The point is if you have a deep-penetration agent inside the LeT or the Taliban or Al Qaeda there is so much excitement about having such an agent because these are not easy to find. You tend to believe whatever the man says. Probably, Headley was telling Americans everything whatever was happening in Pakistan but it's possible that he may not have told them about the Mumbai story.

It's possible. It's not so much question of incompetence of Americans…these things happen. Another thing you are suggesting is that if Americans knew it (details of Mumbai attacks before they happened) and they didn't tell us. I would like to believe that probably, the Americans didn't know the extent of this man's involvement. Obviously, they knew the broad outline... that this is going to happen. That the attack is going to be planned, that it will be from sea, that the Lashkar is involved.

So, you want to say that the agent was smarter than his American handlers?

See, for me the only intriguing thing is that his passport would have all the entries. I agree with you that his handler should have known about it. His visits to India should have been questioned by his American handlers. Why was he going to India so frequently? That is a grey area.

This grey area can be debated further for sake of understanding the issue. This means that in the end he fooled CIA or FBI, completely.

I don't think that he fooled them completely. As I said earlier that when you have agent like him -- a deep-penetration agent -- then you tend to believe what he says. He is giving you so much information. He is giving you information on Lashkar training camps and what is the role of so-called colonels and majors and so on...

In that case why did Americans not keep track of such a good agent? Or is it possible that Americans themselves facilitated Headley's visit to Mumbai?

No, no. I don't think so. As far as we are concerned we didn't notice his visits because Headley had an US passport and an American name. I don't think the Americans were helping him his travel to India.

So, you are saying that this is the case of the American handler's naivety in  believing Headley?

Possibly, possibly.

Which are the other possibilities?

The only thing where I intend to agree with you is how the Americans did not notice that Headley was coming to India since 2005. But, what he was saying and briefing Americans can be understood. The factor of 'gullibility' is understandable. The agency would normally believe a person, who gets such exciting stuff from Pakistan. But, how they lost track of his movements is intriguing. Somebody from the US agencies should explain that to the Indians.

People are asking about our immigration. How come we could not keep track of Headley? It's a fair enough question.

But, I know how the Indian system works. When 15 to 20 lakh foreigners come to India it's difficult to keep track because he must be coming to India from different cities. It was not noticed, as I told you, because he was an American national. I suppose, Americans will deny that he ever worked for them except the DEA.

How do you see the deal between Headley and the US authorities? And is it fair to India?

What is fair or unfair? This is not a Romeo and Juliet love affair. We have a very good strategic partnership with the Americans. I don't think it is going to affect it in any big way. In bilateral relations there are times when things don't work like it should. Even the Americans must be having a grouse that we don't do what they want us to do. This is part of the game.

Is this issue not different? It's a question of 170 deaths of Indians in which Headley is directly involved. You have said just now that Headley may be the kingpin. Don't you give the victim country an access to a 'kingpin' behind such an attack?

In a technical kind of way they will give access or may not give access to Headley. The issue is in the legal domain. Definitely they are not going to agree for an extradition. That's ruled out. It's quite clear from what US government has said so far. Ultimately, what you will get is Headley's deposition in court. I think what the Indian government is looking for is the Pakistani connection in his statement before a US court. That's all, I think, we are hoping for. Let us see what happens. To what extent he implicates himself, to what extent he implicates the Lashkar and to what extent he implicates Pakistan. We are waiting for it. Our future course and even our relations with the US will depend on that statement.

Do you mean the Pakistan army's connection to Headley?

Yes. The ISI or the Pakistani military establishment. We are virtually saying that the Pakistani military establishment has been involved in the Mumbai attacks. Pakistan is denying it by saying that non-state actors are involved. David Headley is a non-state actor.

Could the Americans have handled the Headley episode in such a way that they could also have taken care of India's interest?

Let me put it like this. As we are presuming, and, that seems to be a general view, that Headley was an American agent. If he was an American agent, and, I think he was, then, it is not easy for the Americans to hand over their agent to you just because he may tell you about the LeT and the ISI.

He can tell you lot about Americans as well, so, it's not easy to handover someone of your own. Then, what will be your (US spy agencies) credibility in future in that (Pakistan) part of the world? After all, the Americans are not going to stop operating in those parts. I am sure there must be some other agents as well. If you are going to handover your agent to that part of the world (India) who is considered your (Pakistan's) enemy then where is the American credibility?

Do you mean to say that those who are working in Pakistan for American spy agencies like the CIA will be worried, right now?

Obviously. If you can get hanged then why risk yourself? That's why this bargain plea by Headley. That deal has been worked out by the American authorities with Headley. This is what happens in such cases. It's no big deal, you know! If we presume that Headley is an American agent then how do you expect that their man will be handed over to you?

It is the same logic with Dawood Ibrahim. He is a Pakistani agent so how do you expect him to be handed over to you? This is Dawood Gilani. We have been telling the Pakistanis to hand over Dawood Ibrahim but he is so mixed up with Pakistanis so how can they hand him over to you? Would we hand over somebody in similar circumstances? I don't think so.

Since you are making it as a big thing that will impact Indo-US relations I want to ask why do we swing from one extreme to the other in our relations with the US? Sometime we say the Americans are closest to us. We are two largest democracies and all such things. But, things don't work like that. Ultimately, it is one's own national interest that is paramount.

Do you think India's national interest is served in the Headley case as it has unfolded?

India's interest may not have been served in one case. But, the one case does not mean that it is end of our relationship. Like some people are suggesting that we need to warn the Americans. They want to convey that if this is the way Indians are being treated then closer relations are not possible. In strategic relations, emotions are not allowed.

No one is saying we don't want the relationship. To some critics it's a question of distrust.

In that case I will ask you a question. Today, why is Pakistan perceived to be closer to America than India is?

Experts say Pakistan's establishment is closer to America.

That's what I am saying. More than the Indian establishment, the Pakistani establishment is closer to Washington. General (Ashfaq) Kayani and General (Ahmed Shuja) Pasha are given a grand audience in Washington. This is because Pakistan has realised that not in Afghanistan only but to the region they are crucial. Americans want to leave Afghanistan and Pakistanis know that without them the Americans can't work out the deal. Pakistan is sitting pretty in this part of the region. This is the reality. So if I am frustrated it doesn't change the facts. Right now, Pakistan is saying to Americans that here is the deal for you in Afghanistan. Take it or lump it.

In that case what is your reading of Pakistan's concern vis-à-vis Headley?

I think, they would be laughing. They must be happy, if, he was a double agent. We do think he was a double agent. Here is the double agent who worked more for Pakistanis than for the Americans. And, he is causing sufficient fraction between India and America.

You have been special director of IB and chief of RAW. You must have seen many agents in world of spies. Are you impressed by Headley's persona?

I don't know his details. But, what all I have read in the press seems to be a normal thing. We suspect that he was a double agent and double agents at times provide the best intelligence. You might say it is unethical. But, there is no ethical thing in this issue. Double agents are double agents and they provide crucial intelligence and sometimes the best intelligence.

How will the Headley case move on?

Surely, he will be punished. We are hoping that he will get a life sentence.  But my point is how would it make a difference to the Indian establishment whether he gets a life sentence or 15 years of imprisonment? Those who have lost relatives are very unfortunate. I am not talking about them. My feelings are with them. I am talking of the Indian government. They have to move on. A bilateral relation has to be broad-based.

There are many critics and diplomats who think the Indian government is handling the issue very softly. Some critics have argued that the Chinese government would have been strident and would have created the required pressure.

The Indian government must have been having some compulsions. I am not aware of it. See, relations with US, the way it is perceived, is quite crucial to us. If it were some other country we would have called the ambassador to register a protest.

What could be India's compulsions for remaining soft on the US in this case?

Our national interest and theirs are all a matter of one's perceptions. At this time our government may not want to show Americans in bad light. After all, as I said the relation with the US is crucial.

Sheela Bhatt