The Flight 253 review just released by the White House reveals that a “misspelling” of Umar Abdulmutallab’s name led the State Department to believe he did not have the U.S. visa that he did in fact have — but the implications of this revelation are not immediately clear.
Here’s the nugget from the second-to-last page of the six-page report:
Mr. Abdulmutallab possessed a U.S. visa, but this fact was not correlated with the concerns of Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father about Mr. Abdulmutallab’s potential radicalization. A misspelling of Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name initially resulted in the State Department believing he did not have a valid U.S. visa. A determination to revoke his visa however would have only occurred if there had been a successful integration of intelligence by the CT [counterterrorism] community, resulting in his being watchlisted.
While the review is less than clear on this point, what the passage appears to mean is this: once Abdulmutallab’s father visited U.S. embassy officials in November to express concerns about his son, the State Department should have reviewed the status of his visa, but didn’t because of the misspelling. But even if State had realized Abdulmutallab had a visa, it wouldn’t have been revoked because he wasn’t “watchlisted.”
Abdulmutallab’s name was reportedly put in a large terrorism database, but not on any flight watch lists.
A State Department official told TPM the name was misspelled by one letter when Abdulmutallab’s father spoke to the embassy.
The official said changes are going in to place to avoid a repeat of the problem, so every system will recognize misspelled words, but emphasized that the error didn’t have an effect on whether the Nigerian would have been flagged as a possible threat.
“If the affairs officer had spelled it right and it popped back to say he has a visa that would not have been included” in what was sent to the National Counterterrorism Center, the official said.
(Additional reporting by Christina Bellantoni)
Late 1/8/10 Update: Foreign Policy seems to get to the bottom of the issue — and why the misspelling per se doesn’t matter much — in this post:
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.
And even if the visa had been found, it would not have been revoked because, as noted above, Abdulmutallab was not on a watch list.