Why Can’t U.S. Intelligence Spell?

Created: January 08, 2010 09:43 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

One of the more sensational aspects of the Northwest Airlines Flight 253 review is that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s name was inconsistently spelled by State Department officials after the would-be bomber’s father informed officials at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja about his son’s increasing radicalism. According to the White House review conducted by counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, that “initially resulted in State Department believing he did not have a valid U.S. visa.” But, as you can read from Josh Rogin and from me, even if everyone spelled his name the exact same way throughout the intelligence process, it still wouldn’t have resulted in him being kept off Flight 253, because the evidentiary standards for pulling his visa or moving him onto the no-fly list were too great. President Obama said yesterday that’s going to change.

Cable news may continue to run wild with a vivid but ultimately trivial fact. Such is life. But Noah Shachtman, Wired’s gizmo majordomo, is right to gripe that whatever software program used by the government to standardize foreign names is unacceptably weak.

This is a problem that commercial software firms largely solved years ago. (Try typing “Noa Schactmann” into Google, and see what comes up.) How it could persist in the CT community, I just don’t understand.

So come on people! This is a money-making opportunity for a minimally competent defense tech corporation. We don’t really need correct transliterations, we need consistent ones. Couldn’t there be a program that imports a name to a database in the language/alphabet-of-origin and tracks English permutations of the transliteration?