msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/8/2010 1:32:06 PM ET 2010-11-08T18:32:06

Despite hints, the U.S. intelligence community didn't know that an American whom it had used as an informant was plotting the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, according to an Obama administration review of the case.

While some facts about terror informant David Headley were available to U.S. officials before the Mumbai attacks, the U.S. did not make a connection between Headley and plots against India until after the attacks because of government policy and procedures that were in force at the time, the office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a statement Monday.

The intelligence office did not detail in the statement how those earlier standards may have limited agencies' awareness of Headley, or what those standards were.

"Had the United States government sufficiently established he was engaged in plotting a terrorist attack in India, the information would have most assuredly been transferred promptly to the Indian government," according to the statement from the intelligence office.

The Washington Post reported Saturday that the U.S. had received at least five warnings about Headley's possible links to terrorism. Headley worked as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency starting in the late 1990s, though the agency reportedly cut ties with him before the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the Post said. The assault killed 166 people.

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The New York Times reported Monday that Headley was sent to Pakistan by the DEA despite warnings that he sympathized with extremist groups.

Headley arrived in Pakistan soon after Sept. 11, 2001, to work as an informant for the U.S. but shortly afterward he began training with terrorists. Warnings about his radicalization went ignored, The New York Times reported, citing interviews with senior U.S. officials.

A federal court in New York ignored alarms in October 2001 when it granted Headley, a small-time drug dealer, an early release from probation so that he could be sent to Pakistan by the DEA.

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"All I knew was the DEA wanted him in Pakistan as fast as possible because they said they were close to making some big cases," Luis Caso, Headley's former probation officer, told the Times.

The October 2001 warning came from Headley's former girlfriend, and was first reported by ProPublica on Friday. Headley's two former wives also raised concerns with American authorities between 2005 and 2008 that he had ties to terrorists but they were also ignored, it was reported last month.

A senior government official also told The Times that he believed Headley was working as an informant for the DEA until 2003, which means he was communicating with the United States while he was beginning to plot attacks in terrorist training camps.

The Times' report revealed how the government appeared to overlook a number of red flags and miscommunicate its suspicions. One source said Headley simply told the FBI that his former girlfriend was unreliable when asked about her warning to authorities.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security director for strategic communications, said Monday that while the U.S. had information about Headley, it was not connected to the planning of the Mumbai attacks.

"What we have is various different kinds of information about David Headley that, again, weren't specific to a particular plot in India," said Rhodes, traveling with the president in New Delhi.

Headley pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to laying the groundwork for the attacks. He told Indian interrogators in June that Pakistani intelligence officers were deeply intertwined with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group blamed in the attack.

Headley was born in the United States but spent most of his childhood in Pakistan, moving back to America as a teenager to be with his mother after his parents divorced. He joined Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2001 after hearing a lecture by the group's leader, Hafeez Saeed, on the need for holy war.

Under a deal with prosecutors in the United States, Headley will not face execution if he continues to cooperate with their terrorism investigation. He could face up to life in prison and a $3 million fine when he's sentenced. As part of the plea bargain, the U.S. government agreed not to extradite him to India, Pakistan or Denmark for the charges for which he has admitted guilt.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: D.E.A. informant helped plot Mumbai attacks

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    >>> disturbing, new reports today that american drug deal somewhere sometime informant for the dea was release on parole, sent to pakistan as an informant for the u.s., while providing americans with information he was also training at a terrorist camp . sent to pack stage after september 11th though numerous warning his sympathized with radical islamic groups. less than two months later he began training and played a key role in the 2008 mumbai attacks that killed 164 people. jamie smith a former federal air marshal instruct somewhere the founder of scg international. an nbc news terrorist and the president of good harbor counseling. roger, look, whether you're a local street cop who deals with informants or you're the dea , i suppose there is always some risk, but the fact that there were warnings there were concerns expressed, should the united states have known?

    >> well, chris, you're absolutely right, always risk. this is a great tale of wanting to believe, wanting to believe in the holy grail of intelligence collection, which is human intelligence . a lot of people in the dea and elsewhere believes headley was the type tof individual who could work with groups, penetrate them, and provide them the type of information they were lacking because they didn't have any other resourceses, any other human intelligence resources. it's easy to see how they talked themselves into this. headley provided very good information on drug running , the drug operations, very easy to jump to the next level. if he could do that, maybe he can work with other groups and give us that type of actionable intelligence, pre-9/11 we were missing. cease easy to see how this plays out one of the warning signs from hi girlfriend but dismissed because headley himself said she went credible. do you go to -- if the complaint is being made by the girlfriend, do you just dismiss it because the guy says she's not credible?

    >> well, as roger said, to what we're dealing with people not the people you want to show up at your family christmas party . these are c.i., confident informant somebody that has to have a connect with the underworld, they're not good folks nine times out of ten. and this man had a history of providing good information. and the fact that a jilted girlfriend came along and laid something down that said he wasn't a good guy and he had some concerns with the terrorist side, that's something i'm sure they investigated, looked at it but at the same time they're going to weigh out, what his he provide, what that's provided in the past? what is the potential this man it can where to us versus the girl friend trying to get him thrown back in jail again. these are not the sort of people, like i said, you want to associate with anyway. you're going to get your hands dirty working with them but that's what's required to gain information on the bad guys . you've got to have somebody part of the bad guys ' outfit give you information in the first place.

    >> roger, back in 2001 , tremendous amount of pressure, obviously, to get good intelligence. let me bring it not to drug intelligence but more broadly to the war on terror , and we know that the predator drones have been in yemen . but one of the problems is that they don't have the intelligence to find these al qaeda targets. does that mean there is going to be more risk because we'll be sending more people like headley to places like yemen ?

    >> well, we always try to strike a balance, chris. the cia wants a combination, humanle intelligence, other elements, signal intelligence and reporting from local liaison services. you pull all of the pieces together and create the mosaic to understand the situation. what headley demonstrates, these are the type of scumbags you have to work with bow you need to have layers of verification in place to identify when they might properly go wrong. think about the predator operations which have been wildly successful over pakistan in the past several years. that's a function of years of work, years of operations, that we understand the target in away we didn't prior to 9/11. i think that's a very important point we need to keep in mind. we've had years of preparation and activity over there. that's why we've got son good. but one thing we always forget when talk about the predator, the predator's a wonderfully effective tool. it's not a strategy. we need to figure out how predator operations factor into the broader strategy that we're dealing with, either in pakistan or yemen .

    >> there is the problem. roger cressey , jamie smith , thanks to both of you.

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