The Obama administration has ordered a review of U.S. intelligence about an American conspirator involved in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack to determine if there was a breakdown in information sharing among U.S. agencies that might have helped identify the suspect before the attack, two administration officials tell NBC.
The "after-action review" was ordered by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and is being overseen by White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan. It was triggered by reports over the weekend that two ex-wives of the Mumbai plotter, Pakistani-American David Coleman Headley, had separately reported concerns to U.S. officials that he may have been involved in militant activity in Pakistan, the officials said.
There is a dispute among U.S. agencies about whether all the information provided by the two wives were shared among U.S. law enforcement — and whether it rose to the level that should have prompted a more aggressive inquiry into Headley’s activities. There also could be questions about whether information about Headley should have been passed along to the Indian government prior to the attack.
Headley is considered among the most significant U.s. terror suspects arrested by the FBI in recent years. The son of a Pakistani diplomat who was born in Washington, Headley had a U.s. passport, spoke fluent English and traveled freely between his home in Chicago and Pakistan and India. He was arrested by the FBI at Chicago's O'Hare airport last October and has since pleaded guilty to multiple terrorism charges, including making five visits to India to conduct advance scouting for the Mumbai attacks on behalf of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani terrorist group that orchestrated the attack, which killed about 170 people including six Americans.
U.S. officials were adamant this week in insisting that the information passed along by the two wives were general in nature and — contrary to some reports — did not specifically tie him to Lashkar-e-Taiba. Still, the reports that at least three U.S. agencies — the FBI, the State Department, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (a division of Homeland Security) — all had prior information about Headley has raised sensitive diplomatic issues for the White House.
President Barack Obama is slated to go to India shortly after next month’s election and speak at an event in Mumbai commemorating the attack, which is viewed as the Indian version of 9/11. Indian officials have expressed concerns that information about Headley and Pakistani intelligence officers with whom he allegedly dealt was not passed along prior to the attack.
As first reported by the independent news organization, ProPublica, Headley came on the radar of FBI agents in New York in 2005 when one of his ex-wives complained to New York City police that he had beaten her. In the course of filing a domestic abuse complaint, the ex-wife told the police that he sympathized with militants in Pakistan over the Kashmir issue and had talked about purchasing night vision goggles and other “hiking” equipment that could be used for a terrorist attack, said a U.S. law enforcement official.
This prompted the New York City police to call in FBI agents from a Joint Terrorism Task Force, who conducted two interviews with the ex-wife. But the ex wife was unable to provide any specific information that would have justified opening up a preliminary investigation of Headley or putting him on a no-fly list, the official said. However, a report about the wife’s complaints was entered into the FBI’s Guardian computer data base of potential terror suspects, the official said.
Then two years later, another ex-wife of Headley walked into the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad to report similar concerns, according to two administration officials. In two meetings with a diplomatic security officer and agents of Immigration and Customs, the second ex-wife also said that Headley was associating with Pakistani militants and was making multiple trips to India. One U.S. law enforcement official said that the ex-wife appeared to be offering information in hopes of getting help for a U.S. visa.
The New York Times over the weekend quoted the ex-wife, identified as a Moroccan woman, Faiza Outalha, as telling the U.S. agents: “I told him, he’s either a terrorist, or he’s working for you” and that “I wanted him in Guantanamo.” The U.S. officials failed to express much interest, she added. “Indirectly, they told me to get lost.”
The second of the two meetings in Islamabad took place in December 2007, less than a year before the Mumbai attack.
Two U.S. officials familiar with reporting on the Islamabad meetings — one from the State Department and another from Homeland Security — said that the ex-wife never specifically mentioned his association with members of Lashkar, only Pakistani militants.
"She did not offer any specific names of groups or terrorist individuals," said one of the officials, who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive matters.
Still, the two officials said that a report on Headley was passed along to the rest of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement, including an FBI office at the embassy in Islamabad.
However, a senior law enforcement official said that the FBI had no record of learning about the concerns expressed by the ex-wife in Islamabad until after the Mumbai attack took place. It was only then, the official said, that the 2007 report was connected to the earlier 2005 complaint from the ex-wife in New York.
It is not clear whether the breakdown was within the FBI, as some officials contend, or the result of information not being passed along to the bureau. Either way, the incident could raise issues similar to those that surfaced after the Christmas Day bombing incident aboard a U.S. jetliner when it emerged that the father of the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had reported concerns to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son might be a terrorist. That report was never fully distributed among U.S. law enforcement agencies, a failure that was sharply criticized by later White House and congressional reviews.
"Director Clapper has initiated an after-action review to determine lessons learned," said a spokeswoman for Clapper. "Reviews of this nature are an important part of improving existing processes. Since these events occurred, advancements in information sharing systems have been made by applying the lessons learned from these reviews."
The reports about Headley in 2005 and 2007 "happened much prior to Abdulmatallub and in the previous administration," a White House official told NBC. "We have taken steps to rectify the systemic failures that came to light as a result of the attempted Christmas Day bombing." The official also emphasized that the U.S. had “regularly provided” threat information to Indian officials in 2008 but never had any specifics related to the Mumbai attacks.