On December 9, 2009, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee of the US Senate held a hearing on the subject Five Years After the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA): Stopping Terrorist Travel. Though the hearing was not specifically related to the frequent travels of David Coleman Headley of the Chicago cell of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) to India before the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai and his role in allegedly collecting operational information about the various targets which the LET intended attacking, there was a reference in passing to his travels to India before 26/11 and his role.
In his prepared introductory remarks, Joseph Lieberman, the co-Chairman of the Committee, said:
"In the months leading up to 9/11, we know that the system was “blinking red,” as then CIA Director George Tenet famously put it. The system, however, was not set up to share that information among the different federal agencies involved in a timely manner. We now have the ability to leverage the terrorist watchlist and its integrated connections with other government databases to block the accidental entry into the country of anybody suspected of participating in terrorism. We must also share information on terrorists and other criminals with our partners overseas. This is why I insisted that information-sharing agreements be mandatory for participation in the Visa Waiver Program. I am told that 13 of the 35 visa waiver nations have entered into agreements to share biometric law enforcement and terrorist watch list data with us – and the United States will be sharing the same types of information on a reciprocal basis to these nations. As a stark reminder of the urgency of these international agreements, this week an American citizen, David Headley, was charged in federal court with six counts of conspiracy to bomb public places in India, to murder and maim persons in India and Denmark, to provide material support to foreign terrorist plots, and to provide material support to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and six counts of aiding and abetting the murder of U.S. citizens in India. Headley is alleged to have made five trips to Mumbai from 2006 to 2008 to conduct pre-attack planning and surveillance for LeT of many of the targets that were struck in the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Because Headley was an U.S. citizen, his travel likely did not raise suspicions, and he was able to use the United States as a base of operations while helping to plan one of the most significant terrorist attacks in Indian history. Although it is not clear at this point whether Mr. Headley’s travel raised flags within the U.S. government, this case underscores the need to implement these international agreements as quickly as possible and make sure that all 35 visa waiver nations and other nations with a common interest in preventing acts of terrorism eventually participate in similar agreements."
David Heyman, Assistant Secretary For Homeland Security, who testified before the committee on various measures taken by his Department to monitor travels by terrorist suspects, said the circumstances surrounding the Headley investigation were changing the way authorities were looking at potential suspects. He added:
"We can no longer assume that Americans are not involved in terrorism. As indicated by the recent indictments, we also see the nexus of travel in those who may get further indoctrinated abroad. This is a challenge. Those who are seeking to do harm are constantly hearing what we are doing, watching what we are doing, and adapting to that. So changing names may be one thing. Changing secure documents. Changing even biometrics."
Beyond these cursory remarks, there was no detailed discussion on the ease with which Headley was travelling to Pakistan and India and whether any of the US agencies had noticed this and raised an alarm over it. There was also no reference to reports carried by sections of the US media alleging that Headley was working as an informant of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) since at least 1998.
There were also no questions during the hearing as to whether there were any arrangements between the Governments of India and the US for the exchange of information regarding travels of terrorist suspects between the two countries.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.