Conflict & Justice

India reads Headley report for dirt on double-agent

India's major English newspapers reprinted excerpts and summaries of Sebastian Rotella's evocative investigative report for Pro Publcia on David Coleman Headley, the Pakistani-American terrorist who pleaded guilty to helping to plan the November 26, 2008 attacks on Mumbai.

Rotella's account plays mostly as a recap.  But the proliferation of incidents in which Headley--formerly known as  Daood Sayed Gilani -- was caught and released or conveniently ignored by U.S. authorities make it hard to believe he slipped under the radar by the sheer incompetence of the CIA, DEA and FBI.  This was, after all, after 9/11, when everybody was supposedly on point.

As a portrait of a terrorist, this is fantastic stuff.  As investigative journalism, however, there's not too much meat on the bone.  Here's what we get, in essence, laid out in the third or fourth paragraph: Questions (which we already had), not answers.

U.S. officials say Headley simply slipped through the cracks. If that is true, his story is a trail of bureaucratic dysfunction. But if his ties to the U.S. government were more extensive than disclosed — as widely believed in India — an operative may have gone rogue with tragic results. Both scenarios reveal the kind of breakdowns that the government has spent billions to correct since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Rotella is a great reporter and a brilliant writer -- as shown in his recently published debut novel, Triple Crossing.  But as much detail as we get about Headley's moves prior to the Mumbai attacks, the reports lodged against him by his various wives and girlfriends and their confidants, at the end we're left with the same mystery we started with at the beginning.

My bet is that Rotella could shed more light on these incidents as a novelist than as a journalist.  Here's hoping he does.