The Failure to Communicate

I’ve been very curious about where the breakdown in communications happened which lead to there being no notification that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was attempting to enter the US.

So I’ve been following the news and wondering what the failure was.

And thinking…

We tend to take the easy rout in these cases and point a finger at an organization saying “They didn’t do their job.” My sense is that it is always more complicated than that. Communication is difficult in the best of situations – in most cases it is like playing telephone. What the message is is never the message heard.

When I look at a process (and we are talking about process here) the process of communicating information we talk about hand-offs and points of failure. Usually when I did analysis like this it was within a small company with only a few departments and under 100 employees. Yet even that web of communication was so complicated; with multiple hand-offs, points of failures, and black holes. The black holes were the most fun, when I hit those no one could tell me how things were processed they magically happened “most” of the time.

You start looking at a large organization communicating with other large organizations within different countries…and the complexity goes up exponentially. Not only are we talking about the process but we are talking about the time the process takes to work.

While I’ve been musing on this and thinking about the complexity of it I happened to listen to a podcast of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.

I know, not your typical news source, but in this case they handed me the key.

The question to one of the guest panelist went something like this (poorly quoted):

Last week a spokesperson for National Security stated that they had solved the problem and nothing like what happened with the attempted Christmas bombing will happen again. They have added a software program to the State Department’s systems. What software program is it?

The answer was spell check!

I had to check this out and it turns out that this was the reason our agencies couldn’t correlate Abdulmutallab’s fathers warning. Someone typed his name into the database incorrectly.

From the Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy’s opening statement before the House Committee on Homeland Security on “Flight 253: Learning Lessons from an Averted Tragedy.”

In the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, on the day following his father’s November 19 visit to the Embassy, we sent a cable to the Washington intelligence and law enforcement community through proper channels (the Visas Viper system) that “Information at post suggests [that Farouk] may be involved in Yemeni-based extremists.” At the same time, the Consular Section entered Abdulmutallab into the Consular Lookout and Support System database known as CLASS. In sending the Visas Viper cable and checking State Department records to determine whether Abdulmutallab had a visa, Embassy officials misspelled his name, but entered it correctly into CLASS. As a result of the misspelling in the cable, information about previous visas issued to him and the fact that he currently held a valid U.S. visa was not included in the cable. At the same time the CLASS entry resulted in a lookout using the correct spelling that was shared automatically with the primary lookout system used by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and accessible to other agencies.

After all my deep thinking on all the possible points of failure in the system – I never would have hit on a misspelled name.

Sometimes it is the smallest thing.

Communication is difficult – communication through multiple countries, agencies, and people can hinge on minutiae. Who would have expected in this day of Google, Wiki, and all the other sophisticated systems out there that it would have hinged on the misspelling of a name?

Granted most spell check systems are not as amazing as Google’s search algorithms but it would be helpful to add something either in the spelling or in the data search function to provide relative searches and common name spellings.

I assume they are attempting to close this gap, but horrifying to know it existed in the first place.

~ Tess


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Filed under In the News, Science & Technology

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