The Cable

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 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.

The Cable

Cabler of the Week: Robert Hormats

Where we ask 10 questions that help us to understand one of the personalities making foreign policy in the Obama administration. This week's subject: Under Secretary of State for Economic, Energy and Agricultural Affairs Robert Hormats:

1. Which American president do you look to as the model for your approach to foreign policy? Jefferson, Wilson, FDR, LBJ, JFK, George W. Bush, someone else?

FDR and Harry S. Truman. Both understood the importance of strong alliances -- including with some countries with which we did not agree on many issues -- to accomplish important objectives. They saw great alliances as essential not simply to win World War II but also to construct a new global economic order after it -- to promote reconstruction and avoid a repetition of the mutually destructive economic behavior that helped cause the war in the first place.

Their leadership was critical to the establishment of institutions that underpinned post-war prosperity and security. The economic institutions they created -- designed to build a stable and open global economic system -- were essential to postwar recovery and ultimately to the West's success in the Cold War. They also have served as the framework for the integration of growing numbers of emerging and developing economies into the global trade and financial system, and the cross-border networking of individuals and businesses. Such developments, in turn, have helped nations unlock the unlimited creativity, energy and inventiveness of their citizens and lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and into an increasingly vibrant global middle class. Together these institutions and this system have helped produce the dynamic world economy we enjoy today, one that is critical to continued American prosperity. They also form a strong basis for managing a growing set of fresh challenges resulting from new forces and pressures in the global economy.

2. How do you view U.S. leadership in the world in the 21st century? Is America a hegemon in decline or going strong? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

America is still the "indispensable nation," but there is virtually no major economic issue that can be successfully resolved without a large number of other nations -- traditional allies and powerful emerging economies alike. The global financial crisis was ample evidence -- if any were needed -- of how closely nations are tied together on financial and economic issues. But because the world now is so intensely interconnected, the same also is true when it comes to the environment, trade flows, energy, the volatility of food prices and the availability of food itself, shortages of water, the spread of infectious diseases and vulnerability to terrorism. Creative diplomacy and strong cross-border partnerships are indispensable if American interests are to be served in these areas.

3. What's the number one narrative about the Obama administration's foreign policy so far that you feel has been mischaracterized by the media?

I am reluctant to use the word "mischaracterized," but I would like to see a more thorough media job of documenting the work of the administration in building a more stable international economic system, alongside the political challenges that it is meeting.

4. Which Obama administration foreign-policy official should we watch more closely?

It's a great team that the president and secretary have assembled. Watch all of them!

5. What do you see as the top three challenges for U.S. foreign policy over the next three decades?

In the area of international economic policy, I see many important challenges. Let me just cite one that cuts across many policy issues:  Successfully integrating the large emerging economies into the rules-based, market-oriented global economic system.

As these nations become more powerful economically, they must also assume greater responsibility for the stability and proper functioning of the international economic system. They will also have an important role as America's partners in strengthening existing global economic institutions, creating new ones, and establishing new methods of cooperation to address the challenges of the 21st  century. We all have a role in ensuring that zero-sum competition for markets, energy, food, or capital does not emerge. Instead, the U.S. seeks, in partnership with emerging economies and traditional allies, greater access for all people to the benefits of global trade, investment and information networks, and cooperation to address any disruptions in the global economy or threats to our nation's, or international, economic growth and stability. Shaping the global system of the 21st Century to meet American interests will require U.S. leadership, vision, and creative partnerships with these economies.

6. Why did you decide to go to work for the Obama administration? What do you hope to accomplish?

I strongly support the policy objectives of President Obama and Secretary Clinton. I also believe that their leadership is crucial to successfully addressing the critical issues our country and the world face in this era. And I hope to play a supportive role in helping them address the challenges before our nation.

If the U.S. successfully addresses these challenges, we will strengthen prospects for American and global prosperity for decades to come. Just as Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously wrote that he was "present at the creation" of the American-inspired and led world order established after World War II (of course he was more than present; he was instrumental in the entire process), those of us in government today, in the early 21st century, can be said to be present at the "re-creation" and have an opportunity to help our nation shape it. Of course the character and needs of the world economy today differ greatly from those in the late 1940s and early 1950s -- and therefore require new ways of thinking and cooperating. The turbo-charged globalization of commerce, finance, and information flows, and the entrance of billions of new producers and consumers into the global economy -- particularly with the reintegration of large economies such as China and India -- raise new challenges. But they also require of us today the same high level of creativity and vision displayed by Secretary Acheson and his colleagues over half a century ago.

One area I will especially focus on in this country is working closely with American labor, business, farmers, entrepreneurs and investors to sharpen our nation's international competitive capabilities, and to support their interests abroad. A key task will be to ensure that changes in the global economy can be harnessed to enhance international opportunities for a widening range of Americans in communities throughout our country -- and to help them take full advantage of expanding markets around the world.

I am enthusiastic about working with my colleagues in the State Department, those in other agencies, and members and staff on the Hill to tackle these issues.

7. Who was your mentor in the early stages of your career and how did they help you?

I have had a wonderful mentor in Fred Bergsten, who now runs the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Fred gave me my first job in government as his assistant on the National Security Council staff when I was fresh out of graduate school at the Fletcher School at Tufts University; he has been a valued mentor and close friend ever since. Fred has a passion for international economic policy that I share and a remarkable sense of vision about the kinds of issues that will be critical to the U.S. and global economy in future years.

8. Who is the foreign leader or figure you most admire and why?

Nelson Mandela. Vision, humanity, creativity and commitment.

9. What is your favorite country to visit for pleasure and what should we do when we go there?

Israel, because of Jerusalem; there is no city that contains as much history per square foot as Jerusalem. Egypt because of the remarkable monuments near Cairo and in Upper Egypt. By studying these civilizations and their rich history we learn a lot about ourselves and our religious and cultural traditions.

10. If you had the chance to meet with any leading figure from history, who would it be and what would you say to them?

Galileo, Copernicus, and Darwin -- for much the same reason. The methods of scientific inquiry we practice today owe much to them. They embody human creativity. I would be interested in knowing how they would advise us today on the question of how to adopt creative, visionary and (if need be) daring solutions to the problems we face. Often our societies find it difficult to face up to the need to dramatically change our ways of thinking and acting in the face of new challenges or to overcome past inertia; as the result tough issues often are not addressed with sufficient boldness. These men were quintessentially bold thinkers. We could learn much from them today.