Laura Rozen quickly picked up yesterday on one striking nugget in the Obama administration's new review of the Christmas Day bomb incident. The report's summary reveals that the State Department didn't know that Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab held a U.S. visa because of a misspelling. Seems perhaps like a pedestrian finding. But it actually seems to be a rather important bit, because it indicates an out-dated relationship between user and information.
Much of the attention on how government handles information post-9/11 was focused on addressing the problem of intelligence officials being able to get their hands on relevant data, as they had pre-9/11 been tripped up by bureaucratic obstacles and system interoperability problems. Since 2001, those structural challenges, says the review, have "largely been overcome." Yet as we saw on Christmas Day, the the counterterrorism world's IT still isn't up to the task of making sense of the information it has on hand.
The problem seems to be that the intelligence tools used in this case aren't very flexible. In the civilian world, technology has evolved in the last eight years to compensate for human failings, and web technology in particular is built to intuit our intentions. Google corrects for pretty atrocious spelling, of course. Something like Wikipedia knows that "Umar Mutallab" and "Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab" both refer to the same person. IT in the counterterrorism world might now be ample. But this report paints it as extremely brittle.
Obama has tasked the Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair with putting a focus on developing smarter technology tools, ones equipped with "knowledge discovery, database integration, cross-database searches, and the ability to correlated biographic information with terrorism-related intelligence."
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