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Rediff.com  » News » Headley's guilty plea: 'Good deal'

Headley's guilty plea: 'Good deal'

Last updated on: March 19, 2010 12:10 IST
Aziz Haniffa speaks to the prosecutor in the Headley case. An exclusive report from our Editor in Washington, DC.

Law enforcement officials have said that Pakistani American and Lashkar-e-Tayiba operative David Coleman Headley's guilty plea in return for taking the death penalty and extradition to India or Pakistan off the table was a 'good deal.'

Headley, they said, had agreed to fully cooperate with the prosecution and spill the beans on his sponsor Chicago native Tahawwur Rana, Pakistan-based terrorist leader Ilyas Kashmiri and his handler retired major in the Pakistan military Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation and US intelligence with invaluable information on the terrorist network that plotted the horrific 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks and conspired to attack a Danish newspaper.

Law enforcement sources also rubbished allegations that Headley was a double agent for US intelligence and that this was why he was not being made available for interrogation by Indian intelligence. They told rediff.com not only would the US continue to provide information to the Indian authorities with regard to the conspiracy that went into the execution of the Mumbai attacks, but under the plea agreement, Headley had agreed to be available to foreign governments to be interviewed on US soil.

Headley, 49, who had earlier pleaded not guilty to a dozen federal terrorism charges, on Thursday in an about-face, pleaded guilty to the charges admitting that he participated in planning the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai as well as to later planning to attack the newspaper in Denmark that had caricatured Prophet Mohammad.

Publicly, US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois Randall Sanborn, who is the official spokesman for the prosecution, asked if the driving rationale for Headley's change of plea to guilty before US District Judge Harry Leinenweber, was to escape the death penalty and also a sentence possibly even less than life imprisonment, depending on the information he provides and his role as a material witness against Rana, told rediff.com, "I will not comment on that statement because you are asking me to comment on Headley's state of mind and his feelings and position."

"This is a question you'll have to ask his lawyer," he said.

Headley's lawyer John Theis told reporters after the hearing that his client '"has greed to not only continue his cooperation with the government, which he has been doing since October, but also to make himself available to interviews by other governments in this country.'

'As part of his agreement, he has agreed to allow himself to be interviewed by foreign governments in this country,' he said, and acknowledged that if Headley refuses to be interviewed by Indian investigators in the US about the Mumbai attacks, that 'would mean a violation of the plea agreement.'

The plea agreement stated that 'defendant agrees that, when directed by the United States Attorney's Office, he will fully and truthfully participate in any debriefings for the purpose of gathering intelligence or national security information.'

'Defendant further agrees that, when directed by the United States Attorney's Office, he will fully and truthfully testify in any foreign judicial proceedings held in the United States by way of deposition, videoconferencing or letters rogatory. Defendant agrees to the postponement of his sentencing until after the conclusion of his cooperation,' it said.

Sanborn, obviously indicating the prosecution's intent to use Headley's cooperation to nail Rana and consequently obtain as much information about the recruitment of the likes of Headley by the likes of the Lashkar and other terror networks based in Pakistan, when asked what happens now in the process, told rediff.com, "There is a co-defendant, whose case is still pending -- Mr Rana -- and we're do back in court on March 29 to begin further pre-trial proceedings."

"Right now, we continue to prosecute the case against Mr Rana, and Mr Headley eventually will be sentenced. But there is no time table for when that will be."

Asked if Headley, depending on his cooperation, could escape a life sentence too and be eligible for parole, Sanborn said. "I can't speculate on that. Anything other than death is a possible sentence from life or something less, but that remains to be seen. The sentence would be up to the judge to determine."

But he acknowledged that whether Headley gets off with a lighter sentence than life, would depend on Rana's trial. "That would be the scenario where Headley could be a witness at Rana's trial. We would wait till after Headley completes his cooperation before he is sentenced."

Sanborn reiterated that "the case against the co-defendant (Rana) is still progressing. It requires his (Headley's) continued cooperation and he's yet to be sentenced. The matter is not over."

Theis too had earlier echoed similar sentiments, telling reporters that 'it is obviously a complicated case. Sentencing is up to Judge Leinenweber. This case has a long way to go.'

The plea agreement said that while 'an anticipated advisory sentencing guideline of life imprisonment' is likely, acknowledged that if Headley 'continues to provide full and truthful cooperation, the Government will ask the Court to grant an unspecified departure from the sentencing guidelines.'

Sanborn refused to comment on the allegations that Headley was a double agent and that that was why this plea agreement was struck so that his possible extradition to India could not take place. "Sorry, I have no comment on any of those matters, outside of what happened in court today."

Thies had said 'There is nothing in the plea agreement about anything about that (allegations of Headley being a double agent). I don't know where that kind of language comes from.'

He noted that even though his client had been informed of his constitutional rights as an American citizen to his right of counsel and to remain silent and read the Miranda rights that anything he said could be used to incriminate him, ever since his arrest, Headley had been cooperating with the investigation and provided invaluable information to the authorities, and this in turn had been shared with the governments of India and Denmark.

Headley's co-counsel Robert Seeder, making the case as to how important a source of information his client was, said, 'He chose not to exercise those rights and in fact to provide timely, thorough, trustworthy and complete information,' and added, this information 'has significantly helped the United States and also aided other countries.'

Theis added, 'His cooperation has potentially saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people and his cooperation is going to continue throughout the remainder of this case.'

He said that Headley had also never been a national security threat nor been involved in any plan to perpetrate any terrorism against the US or American citizens.

Sanborn asked as to how much ruling out extradition to India had factored into Headley's guilty plea and if it carried as much weight as taking the death penalty off the table, said, "I just have to refer you to what the plea agreement says on extradition."

"I am not going to comment on it, other than what it says on that paragraph," he added.

The plea agreement on extradition said, 'Pursuant to Article 6 of the Extradition Treaty between the United States and India, Article 7 of the Extradition Treaty between the United States and Denmark, and Article 4 of the Extradition Treaty between the United States and Pakistan, defendant shall not be extradited to the Republic of India, the Kingdom of Denmark, of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, respectively, for any offenses for which he has been convicted in accordance with this plea... as long as he fully discloses all material facts concerning his role with respect to these offenses and abides by all other aspects of this agreement.'

Headley pled guilty to all 12 counts he was charged with in exchange for a maximum sentence -- which could have been death -- and extradition to either India, Denmark or Pakistan.

The counts were: 'Conspiracy to bomb places of public use in India; conspiracy to murder and main in India; six counts of aiding and abetting the murder of US citizens in India; conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism in India; conspiracy to murder and main persons in Denmark; conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism in Denmark; and conspiracy to provide material support to Lashkar-e-Tayiba.'

In January, a federal grand jury returned an indictment adding Rana, Pakistan-based terrorist leader Kashmiri and a retired major in the Pakistani military Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed, to charges filed in December against Headley, alleging that they all participated in conspiracies involving a planned terrorist attack against a Danish newspaper and the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

The 12-count superseding indictment contained the identical charges that were filed against Headley on December 7, 2009, while adding Rana as a defendant in three of the counts charging material support of the terrorism plots in Denmark and India, as well as in support of Lashkar, designated by the US State Department as a foreign terrorist organisation and believed to be behind the attack on 26/11.

Kashmiri, alleged to be in regular contact with the Al Qaeda leadership, and Rehman, were charged in two conspiracy counts relating to the Denmark terrorism plot.

While both Rana and Rehman were charged separately in previous court filings, the January indictment charged Kashmiri for the first time, although he was identified by name in the charges filed previously against Rana, Rehman and Headley.

Headley and Rana, also 49, have remained in federal custody in Chicago since being arrested in Chicago on October 3, 2009 and October 18, 2009 respectively

On February 15, 2006, Headley, who was living in Philadelphia at the time had changed his name from Daood Gilani, allegedly to present himself in India as an American, who was neither Muslim nor a Pakistani.

In June 2006, Headley had allegedly traveled to Chicago, advised Rana of his assignment to scout potential targets in India, and obtained approval from Rana, who owned First World Immigration Services in Chicago and elsewhere, to open a First World office in Mumbai as cover for his activities.

Rana allegedly directed an individual in his office to prepare documents supporting Headley's cover story of opening a First World office in Mumbai, and advised Headley how to obtain a visa for travel to India.

In his visa application, Headley misrepresented his birth name, his father's true name and the purpose of his travel, according to the FBI affidavit.

In July 2006, unnamed Person A -- according to the FBI affidavit -- in Pakistan provided Headley with $25,000 to establish and operate the Mumbai office of First World and to pay for living expenses while Headley carried out his assignment for Lashkar. He would later make five extended trips to Mumbai from September 2006 through July 2008, each time taking photographs and making videotapes of various potential targets, including those attacked on 26/11, and all the time using his association with First World as cover for his travels.

Before each trip, according to the FBI affidavit, Headley was instructed by Lashkar members and associates regarding specific locations where he was to conduct surveillance, and after each of these trips, Headley traveled to Pakistan to meet with his handlers and report on the results of his surveillance, and provide Lashkar with the surveillance photos and videos.

It states that it was Rehman who took Headley to meet with Kashmiri in February 2009 in the Waziristan region in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

According to the charges, in March 2009, Headley's Lashkar handler, Member A had advised Headley that Lashkar had decided to put the newspaper attack on hold because of pressure in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks.

In May 2009, Headley and Rehman had met again with Kashmiri in Waziristan and Kashmiri had allegedly directed Headley to meet with his European contacts who could provide the latter with money, weapons and manpower for the newspaper attack.

In September 2009, Headley and Rana allegedly spoke about reports that Kashmiri had been killed in a drone attack and the implications of his possible death for the plan to attack the Danish newspaper.

Later that month, Rehman called Headley from Pakistan to report that Kashmiri was not killed and was anxious to move forward with attacking the newspaper. Later, Rana and Headley allegedly agreed that funds that had been provided to Rana could be used to fund Headley's activities in in Denmark.

On October 3, 2009, the entire conspiracy began to unravel when Headley was arrested at the O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, when he was intending ultimately to travel to Pakistan and meet with and deliver the approximately 13 surveillance videos to Rehman and Kashmiri, the indictment charged.

The charges filed in January, identified Kashmiri as an influential leader of the Harakat-ul-Jihad Islami, an organisation that trained terrorists and executed attacks in Jammu and Kashmir and other areas.

It said that Kashmiri based his operations from FATA, which has served as a haven for a plethora of terrorist organisations, including Al Qaeda. The indictment alleged that Kashmiri was in regular contact with Al Qaeda and in particular with Al Qaeda leader, Mustafa Abu al Yazid, also known as 'Sheikh Said al Masri.'

US Attorney General Eric Holder, said that Headley's 'guilty plea is a crucial step forward in our efforts to achieve justice for the more than 160 people who lost their lives in the Mumbai terrorist attacks.'

He said, 'Working with our domestic and international partners, we will not rest until all those responsible for the Mumbai attacks and the terror plot in Denmark are held accountable.'

Holder, America's equivalent of India's home minister, said, 'Not only has the criminal justice system achieved a guilty plea in this case, but David Headley is now providing us valuable intelligence about terrorist activities.'

'As this case demonstrates, we must continue to use every tool available to defeat terrorism both at home and abroad,' he added.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC Washington, DC