A Dangerous Misspelling

Posted April 29, 2010, at 6:27 p.m.

America, in some parlance, has been at war with radical factions of Islam for at least nine years. Yet, a simple misspelling of a potential terrorist’s name allowed him to easily head to the United States. If we’ve learned nothing since the 9-11 terrorist attacks, it should be that American officials need to be more vigilant in tracking would-be terrorists and, where appropriate, revoking their visas so they can’t come to America.

Vigilance includes realizing that Islamic names can be long and the spelling complicated. There is a website that searches for multiple spellings of words. It’s called Google. If U.S. intelligence officials have yet to realize that such misspellings are literally a disaster waiting to happen, the country is more vulnerable that we think.

A recent Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee showed that progress is being made. This is encouraging, but questions remain about how many other potentially deadly problems remain to be fixed.

On Christmas Day, a 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to blow up a plane as it neared Detroit. The explosive chemicals hidden in his underwear failed to detonate and he was subdued by passengers.

The Nigerian’s father went to the U.S. embassy there last November to warn that his son had expressed radical views. His name was added to a database of more than 50,000 people with suspected terrorist ties. It was, however, misspelled so when State Department officials looked to see whether he had a valid U.S. visa, it appeared he did not. If his name had been spelled correctly, his visa likely would have been revoked, as Britain had already done. At a minimum, he would have been subject to additional airport screening.

Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs said that the State Department had strengthened its visa issuance and revocation process. Visas can be more quickly revoked from people who are linked to terrorism and the department now uses software to check multiple possible spellings of names.

This is an improvement, but it shouldn’t have taken more than nine years and the possibility of a plane being blown up for this small — but critical — problem to be fixed.

“We must continue to strengthen our visa issuance and revocation process,” Sen. Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said after the hearing. “Since this is a primary means of preventing terrorists from traveling to our nation, it must work efficiently and it must be a priority.”

The bottom line is that gathering intelligence is worthless if the information can’t be readily found by people who must decide whether someone should be able to board a plane or should have his visa revoked. Lawmakers should focus their attention on ensuring that barriers to information sharing — technical, human error and otherwise — are removed.

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