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'NIA team may not have got much from Headley'

June 11, 2010 16:12 IST

The United States Department of Justice on Thursday announced that a team of Indian investigators was afforded complete and unhindered access to Lashkar-e-Tayiba operative David Coleman Headley over a period of seven days.

The department, in a statement, said, "As part of the cooperation and partnership between the United States and India in the fight against international terrorism, Indian law enforcement officials were provided direct access to interview David Coleman Headley," aka Daood Gilani, who pleaded guilty on March 20, 2010 to being a key conspirator in the horrific 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks.

In his guilty plea, the 49-year-old Pakistani American admitted that he participated in planning terrorist attacks in Mumbai as well as an attack on a Danish newspaper, which had caricatured Prophet Muhammad.

The Justice Department statement said, "Headley and his counsel agreed to the meetings and Headley answered the Indian investigators' questions over the course of seven days of interviews."

It claimed "there were no restrictions on the questions posed by Indian investigators," but added, "To protect the confidentiality of the investigations being conducted by both India and the United States, both countries have agreed not to disclose the contents of the interviews."

The US embassy in New Delhi in a statement said that US Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer, "proudly conveyed his strong support for the government of India/United States government collaboration in the interview process in Chicago."

Roemer said, "The Headley interviews were historic in the nature of security cooperation. This strategic partnership is significant, substantive, and highly successful."

The Indian investigating team had arrived in the US on May 31, and their interview with Headley began on June 3, the same day the two countries kicked off their first Strategic Dialogue in Washington, co-chaired by US Secretary of State and External Affairs Minister S M Krishna

"We value the support we have received from the US government in our investigations," he said, and added, "In this regard, access to our authorities to persons who have been apprehended by your government in connection with the Mumbai terror attack is perhaps the logical next step. We are confident that our continued cooperation will lead to the realisation of this objective."

Roemer praised the "superb cooperation between the Indian team and their American counterparts throughout this process," and noted the "depth and breadth of our partnership in this key area, including a counterterrorism cooperation initiative, joint US-India work on mega-city policing, forensic lab training, intelligence-sharing, sharing best practices, and cooperation on launching a National Counterterrorism Center."

 "As President Obama underscored last week during the India-US Strategic Dialogue, India and the US 'are cooperating more closely than ever before against transnational threats' working to prevent terrorism that threatens both our countries and the world at large," he said.

The four-member National Investigation Agency team that questioned Headley -- who is being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago -- was led by Loknath Bahera. The team also met US Attorney General Eric Holder in Washington, DC.

Law enforcement sources told, "It's up to the Indians to ascertain whether what they gathered from the interviews with Headley is of the quality and utility they were seeking in terms of information on his handlers who conspired and planned the Mumbai terror attack, and the people he met with in India during his reconnaissance there. So, it's an open question."

 "It is conceivable that the Indian investigators may not have gotten much more than is already in the public domain and in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's affidavits and what they have been provided on a consistent basis by US intelligence," said a source.

Another source said, "It's possible, he (Headley) may have provided them with information on the LeT's training facilities, which he visited and was trained at, and possible discussion of strategies and plans and possibly names of the leadership and the handlers planning these attacks."

But one source, familiar with the case, told, "This guy is not to be underestimated in his sophistication that comes from years of being an undercover agent and one who is fully aware of his rights as an American citizen and is also fully updated on the laws and the nuances of the plea agreement."

Diplomatic sources acknowledged that they had pushed very strongly for access to Headley because they feared that denial of such access would have affected India-US strategic partnership.

"We did not want it to become a major political and diplomatic issue, which it was beginning to become when the access continued to be delayed," one source said.

"But nobody could have forced Headley to say anything," another source pointed out, and everything came under the rubric of US laws "and it was entirely managed by the department of justice."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC