CHICAGO – An admitted American terrorist who is the government's top witness in the trial of a Chicago businessman accused in the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks repeatedly lied to the FBI, a judge and even his wife as he cooperated in a plea deal to save his own life, defense attorneys said Tuesday.
David Coleman Headley, who has pleaded guilty to laying the groundwork for the three-day rampage in India's largest city, spent five days on the witness stand detailing how he received orders from a Pakistani terrorist group and the country's main intelligence agency to conduct video surveillance in Mumbai.
But defense attorneys for the Chicago businessman, Tahawwur Rana, told jurors that Headley's account is unreliable even though he is the government's key witness. They claim he implicated Rana, his longtime school friend, in the plot because he was motivated by the possibility of making a deal with prosecutors — a technique he learned in his time as an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
"To get something good, you have to give them something good?" Rana defense attorney Patrick Blegen asked.
"Yes," Headley said.
"You knew if you don't get someone else arrested, all the weight of the case would rest on you alone?" Blegen said.
"Yes," Headley answered.
Headley, who pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and extradition, wrapped up testimony Tuesday with prosecutors saying they expect to call up to eight more witnesses starting Wednesday.
None has been as anticipated as Headley, whose testimony has been scrutinized for what it has revealed about the global fight against terrorism. The trial comes on the heels of the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan and amid suspicions that the country's government may have known or helped hide the former al-Qaida leader. Pakistan has denied the allegations.
Headley testified Tuesday that a militant leader with ties to al-Qaida — who is also charged in Rana's case — had plotted to attack U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin. Headley told jurors that in August 2009, he used one of Rana's computers at his Chicago-based immigration services business to begin researching details about Lockheed Martin for Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistani terrorist leader.
"He had people who had conducted surveillance," Headley said of Kashmiri.
Headley said Kashmiri was angry over the U.S. drone attacks inside Pakistan and wanted to target the defense contractor. Kashmiri leads the militant group Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, which has launched attacks in India and Pakistan, including a 2006 suicide bombing against the U.S. consulate in Karachi that killed four people, according to the State Department.
Headley didn't provide details about the plot, which wasn't carried out. He also said Rana did not know about it.
Rana, a Pakistani-born Canadian, has pleaded not guilty to accusations that he provided Headley cover as a representative of his immigration business while Headley conducted surveillance for the attacks that killed more than 160 people. Rana has also pleaded not guilty to assisting Headley as he took surveillance for another planned attack on a Danish newspaper that in 2005 printed cartoons of Prophet Muhammad that offended many Muslims.
Headley has detailed through emails, recorded conversations and transcripts how he took orders from both the Pakistani intelligence agency known as the ISI and the Pakistani militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, that took credit for the Mumbai attacks.
In their final moments to question Headley before jurors on Tuesday, prosecutors reiterated that all of Headley's work in plotting and planning were communicated with Headley's Lashkar handler, Sajid Mir, and an ISI officer known only as "Major Iqbal" and Rana. Kashmiri, Mir and Iqbal, along with three others, are also listed on the Rana indictment, but their whereabouts are unknown.
The defense's main focus has been to portray Headley as a liar who lived multiple lives and used his friend over the years. Rana and Headley, who are both 50, met as teenagers at a Pakistani military boarding school.
"He is a guy with a very troubled past and a very troubled history with the truth," Blegen told reporters.
Under defense questioning, Headley admitted he lied in his initial statements to law enforcement when he said Rana had no knowledge of his plans. On Tuesday, he said he had sought a psychiatrist for a "mixed personality disorder" diagnosis, but did not disclose that treatment when asked by the judge in the case. He also acknowledged that he omitted details about his second wife when he spoke to his first wife.
Defense attorneys showed clips of Headley's initial statement to investigators, which showed a stark contrast to the man who has been speaking in a soft and nearly monotonous voice while appearing unaffected by days of questioning. In the video, a visibly agitated and fast-talking Headley keeps asking prosecutors if they had made any other arrests yet in the case.
On more than one occasion, Headley relied on Rana to help him commit crimes, even without his knowledge, he testified. Headley — who has two heroin smuggling convictions and later worked with the DEA as an informant — said he took Rana with on a car trip to smuggle heroin in Pakistan because Rana's government identification would help them get through check points easily. Rana, who attended medical school in Pakistan, served in the country's military. However, Headley testified that Rana had no idea there was heroin in the car and it was a huge risk.
Still, experts have said that undermining Headley's credibility is a challenge for the defense. His testimony has involved numerous emails and transcripts of phone calls with others listed in the indictment. Government witnesses are also expected to include FBI agents.
"He's certainly an imperfect individual, but the fact that the U.S. government put him up there and put him up there first, seems to suggest a reasonable level of confidence in what he has to say," said Stephen Tankel, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has written a book on Lashkar.
Blegen said defense attorneys were still deciding if they would put on a case.
Sophia Tareen can be reached at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen
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