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More on misspelling the underwear bomber’s name

Transliterations of names from languages with non-Roman alphabets being somewhat subjective, there’s no firm rule for how a foreign surname should or shouldn’t be written out in English. So it’s somewhat unfair to be a Monday-morning quarterback when looking at the State Department’s handling of the information for underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. But in ...

574632_100108_abdulmutallab2802.jpg
574632_100108_abdulmutallab2802.jpg
UNSPECIFIED - UNDATED: This undated handout image provided by the U.S. Marshals Service on December 28, 2009 shows Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Abdulmutallab, 23, is a Nigerian man suspected of attempting to blow up Northwest 253 flight as it was landing in Detroit on Christmas day. (Photo by U.S. Marshals Service via Getty Images)

Transliterations of names from languages with non-Roman alphabets being somewhat subjective, there's no firm rule for how a foreign surname should or shouldn't be written out in English. So it's somewhat unfair to be a Monday-morning quarterback when looking at the State Department's handling of the information for underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

But in Washington, fair is a four-letter word, and the State Department is scrambling to explain why the president's just-released review of the Christmas day incident calls out State for failing to realize that the 23-year old Nigerian had a visa to travel to the United States when the department reported its suspicions of him to the National Counterterrorism Center using the "Visas Viper" process.

State called an impromptu press briefing late Thursday evening to address the issue. The tone of the briefing was combative, as reporters pressed the "senior administration official" for details about the misspelling that he seemed not to want to give up. But here's what we learned.

Transliterations of names from languages with non-Roman alphabets being somewhat subjective, there’s no firm rule for how a foreign surname should or shouldn’t be written out in English. So it’s somewhat unfair to be a Monday-morning quarterback when looking at the State Department’s handling of the information for underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

But in Washington, fair is a four-letter word, and the State Department is scrambling to explain why the president’s just-released review of the Christmas day incident calls out State for failing to realize that the 23-year old Nigerian had a visa to travel to the United States when the department reported its suspicions of him to the National Counterterrorism Center using the “Visas Viper” process.

State called an impromptu press briefing late Thursday evening to address the issue. The tone of the briefing was combative, as reporters pressed the “senior administration official” for details about the misspelling that he seemed not to want to give up. But here’s what we learned.

Someone (they won’t say who) at the State Department (presumably at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria) did check to see if Abdulmutallab had a visa (they won’t say exactly when). That person was working off the Visas Viper cable originally sent from the embassy to the NCTC, which had the name wrong.

“There was a dropped letter in that — there was a misspelling,” the official said. “They checked the system. It didn’t come back positive. And so for a while, no one knew that this person had a visa.” (They won’t say for how long)

Abdulmutallab’s father came into the embassy on Nov. 18 or 19 and the embassy sent the Visas Viper cable on Nov. 20. So when did this checking for the visa happen?

“No one may have checked for a visa until Christmas Day,” the official admitted.

Of course, had the visa been discovered earlier, that still wouldn’t have stopped the attack because the evidentiary standards for pulling visas were too high. “To revoke a visa, you have to find that someone’s ineligible,” the official explained.

So the State Department and the intelligence community had the wrong spelling of the underwear bomber’s name for more than a month, which would have been a problem in finding out he had a visa, had anybody decided it was worth it to check.

Everybody got that?

As the Danger Room blog points out, another way to solve this problem would be if the State Department or intelligence community had discovered the magic of Google.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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