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08 January 2010


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"The misspelled name thing will be very hard to fix..."

I wonder if the government would hire Google to develop a version of their software for use on our databases. Google's algorithms are sometimes uncanny in their ability to make connections between disparate databases, identify possible spelling errors, etc.

N. M. Salamon

As long as the USA leadership can tie AQ to any country there will be action and to h**l with the results: WE ARE AT WAR!

That AQ can not be defeated by invading or using long distance armaments [Predator, Reaper, bombers, etc] is obvious to all, except the push and pull of neocons and related/unrelated bureucrats/politicians.

There is no conceivable way that 16 different intellingence services, each with different drivers and different ambitious bureaucrats in command, can produce usable data - for all of them are vying for the first prize, and therefore the relations are always strained, for EMPIRE BUILDING IS THE AIM, rather than the security of the homeland [thus you constantly need new bodies, however green, to grow your own empire - even among departments such as Defence, Homeland, FBi, CIA, et al ad infinitum].

You are correct in your previous suggestion that there should be an OGRE in charge of all, completely controlling top bureucrats and the related financing.

Yet again, with respect to spelling, the short coming of USA's [and related Anglo-Saxon cultures'] education philosophy comes to harm their own society, for we do not want to teach foreign languages to our citizens, for we believe that English is the univeral language [even as there are more Mandarin speakers than all with broken or correct English].

To defeaqt AQ, in my opinion, will need two policial steps: 1 quit backing Israel; and, 2., the USA armed forces must leave all Muslim lands. This is not feasable under the present circumstances! might be in 2-3 years when the PEAK OIL and GLOBAL WARMING really shows its effects.
Therefore, Colonel, the only thing you [and I among many others] can do is pray that sanity returns to the ruling elites!

Bill Wade, NH

This bothers me, you have
Michigan attorney Kurt Haskell and his attorney wife Lori Haskell sitting on the floor next to the ticket agent and they overhear the conversation from the "Indian" looking well-dressed man trying to convince the agent to let on board, sans passport, a youngish looking and poorly dressed kid from Sudan. The Haskells get suspicious but that's the end of their thinking till the deed on-board happens. Myself, I would never have boarded that plane if I had overheard that conversation until I was totally certain that the "kid" wasn't getting on too.
We have to rely on ourselves.

Patrick Lang


I suppose I should be more specific about the structure of the name.

'abd al-mutallab" is a religious name. It is morphologically an "idafa," that, is, a noun-noun construct in whch the first term "abd" (slave)is possessed by the second term "al-mutallab" to mean "slave of the -----."

Such a name usually refers to the Almighty or an attribute of the Almighty in the second term.

"mutallib" is an active participle of a measure of the root TLB (ism fa'il). This root is often associated with searching or seeking. (or studying) The way I have seen this man's name written in English is "mutallab" with an "a." This should be a passive participle of the same verb.

How can God be passive? Perhaps his name means "slave of the besought one."

Perhaps the press is simply recording his name incorrectly. pl

Mad Dogs

Apologies for the off-topic comment here Pat, but I thought the SST readers would appreciate another bombshell (like his last one) from our most senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Major General Michael T. Flynn.

Via Noah Shachtman over at Wired, here's General Flynn's December 23rd presentation on the state of play in Afghanistan/Pakistan:

“State of the Insurgency : Trends, Intentions and Objectives”


FWIW I came away very uneasy with Obama's response: it seemed to me little more than "Work faster, work smarter, use a bigger net." The competing bureaucracy structure hasn't changed and the intelligence clearinghouse agency still seems pretty toothless.

I remain amazed that the father's warning at the embassy didn't set off major alarm bells.

Byron Raum

I don't know Arabic, but speaking as a software engineer who has done work in linguistics, I am fairly certain that it is not that difficult to write a program that takes two random words and can tell you if they will sound similar to the human ear. The software industry solved this problem long ago. It is jawdropping to find out that this is not available to the people who are supposed to be guarding our lives and liberty.

Patrick Lang


There are many dialects and pronunciations.

There are three "th" sounds, two "d"s, two "s"s, etc.

An Egyptian street person pronounces the letter
"j" as a "g" in English most other Arabs pronounce it as "j."

Similar is not good enough.

What software is that? pl

Wulf Losee

Don't know Arabic, but doesn't Abdulmutallab roughly mean "servant who obeys god"? (from a list of online list of Arabic name meanings).

Is that Abdulmutallab's original name, or did he assume/adopt it?



To those with the background to answer:

If you had the President's ear, whom would you recommend now instead of Brennan (or the VP)?

What marching orders, actually achievable in the real world, should the new person be given?

And what would you have recommended the President say publicly that one could reasonably expect a politician to say?


I also have not formally studied Arabic. However, I am a computer scientist and it seems there is a fair amount of research being done on the romanization and transliteration of Arabic.
Or the introduction of Arabic diacritics using unvoweled textual input.
Here is one program for example:

Jack Halpern of CJK Dictionary Institute also does a lot of work on Arabic translation.
e.g. http://www.kanji.org/cjk/arabic/arannana.pdf

and online resources of Arabic name databases:

One important point to realize is that many of these methods are not exact pattern matching, but instead probabilistic models which don't have to be exactly right. Will names always exactly match? Probably not, but if a putative match has a high enough score and same relative age and birth location, isn't that enough to narrow down even someone with an Arabic name?
I would think the Arabic speaking world has computer systems to maintain and track Arabic names. Why would this be hard for any other nation?



I had a question before I saw this report that is indirectly related to the problem you've treated in this post:

White House Aides Said to Chafe at Slow Pace of Afghan Surge

Who knows where this might lead? I was pleased that Joe Biden was on the "good" side of this list - Though sometimes a target of ridicule, with few exceptions I've always liked his manner, and you seemed to appreciate him for the effort to set the counterterrorism effort on a straighter path)...

Here's the original question I have been considering:

Can you offer the names of two or three "known" individuals from the past who filled the profile that you are suggesting are absent or marginalized in agency (and uniformed) leadership; that is, the antithesis of the "hypercompetitive bureaucratic politician"?

I know it's terribly pessimistic and probably unrealistic to say this, but I wonder whether there is anyone left who might fit the bill...

The Twisted Genius

Colonel Lang

I agree with Byron Raum. I have witnessed several demos of an artificial intelligence software package based on geometric algebra that can pull intentions from jargon filled, cryptic conversations in near real time. I am sure it could handle the dialect, pronunciation and transliteration challenges of names to produce a usable result. However this technology is not for the faint of heart. There are only a few score of mathemeticians/programmers that work in this particular field... and I am certainly not one of them.

The Twisted Genius

In spite of my last comment, better software is not the real answer to our intelligence problems. What we have now is a feudal system of near independent intelligence fiefdoms run by bureaucrats interested in defending and expanding their rice bowls. We need someone to tackle this monster in the spirit of General John Stark, "There they are boys! We beat them today or Molly Stark sleeps a widow tonight!" Brennan doesn't strike me as the right type. Perhaps General Zinni?


Here is a blog post with a remarkable idea of how to better organize against transliteration problems: A Modest Proposal In The Interests of National Security

what if we had all applicants fill out a bubble sheet [with their arabic written name], like unto that which Americans fill out for any standardized academic test (e.g., the SAT), possibly linked in with some sort of biometrics, and that gets translated into a standardized bar code that code be scanned, databased, and disseminated electronically.


Col. Lang

I just wanted to recommend this piece by Glen Greenwald on terrorism as the price of our unquestioning support of Israel. As Greenwald says, to even discuss the possibility is taboo in American politics. There is no politician on any side who will even mention it.

How bad does it have to get before we can talk about it?

In my opinon 9/11 began the unconscious process of the "Israelization" of American domestic security. Our airports, our society, have become by necessity more like Israeli airports and institutions than American. Is this the direction we wish to continue going?


Alba Etie

Why can't the different federal agencies have case officers that speak the local language ? It appears that the NYCPD stood up a very good number of native speakers by going to the first generation street cops .
Many of these 'white sheilds ' were then promoted into the counterterrorism intelligence unit that New York Police Comm Kelly put in place.
Perhaps a good resource on how this was done would be "Securing the City' by James Dickey.

Mark Gaughan

It has been established that Abdulmutallab purchased a round-trip ticket not a one-way.
For a good look at the facts surrounding this incident, go here:

Howard C. Berkowitz

Apropos of the problem of similar-sounding names, this had been addressed even pre-computer, with the Soundex system. There certainly have been refinements, but, in 1970, when I worked on the original automation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service database, a rough description of the method then in use. I don't remember the actual tables, so I'll approximate.

1. Capture the best-guess of the first letter. This won't be used for a total match, but it has some semantic significance.
2. Strip out the vowel sounds.
3. Take successive consonant-equivalents and encode them with numeric designation for similar sound.

So, for a 1970 data base heavily weighted toward Hispanic names, the most common surnames of

would all encode to the same Soundex. The problem we faced was not the nuances of pronunciation, but that INS was creating a new record for each passing of the border by a day worker. At one point, 25% of 63 million records were for Maria Rodriguez and variations, and 10% for Juan Gomez.

N. M. Salamon

An interesting analysis of the aims of AQ by an expatriate USA [rich] resident of Spain.

I believe his analysis is worth reading, it seems plausible, and does not follow neocon notions.

Please read and enjoy:
top story of his [usually]weekly posting


Bill Wade:

Please see

"In the interest of obtaining the truth, which has always been my goal, I am posting the following account of Bo Taylor that differs from mine:

"After we landed in Detroit I saw an older looking teenager who was African and looked NEARLY IDENTICAL to the terrorist bomber. Since he was a minor, and travelling alone, he was accompanied by an airport employee at all times. Kurt, this could have been the guy you saw in Amsterdam before we boarded." I have no reason whatsoever to dispute the veracity of Bo's statement. I also have no reason to not believe what I saw."


To all the geniuses, twisted and otherwise, who are prepared to make short work of the Arabic names conundrum, by use of a magic computer program, come on down! I am rather certain you will soon discover that your respective picks are broken.

The name in question is one of those that has Arabic roots, but has morphed over many years. It is only one of the problems of "Arabic names." Others include refusals by our agencies to adopt a single Romanization scheme even for the material we ourselves generate. Even if we could/would do it, there are scads of sources for Arabic names that use all sorts of other organized and disorganized schemes of Romanization.

Geometric algebra, eh? What pray tell, is a "usable result?" Is it one that would allow perfect differentiation of one human being from another simply on the basis of a name? I would really love to see that, but since I have heard such blithe promises many, many times since 9/11, I guess I will not hold my breath.


Arabic transliteration software? Abdulmutallab may be an "arabic" name but his official documents are not in arabic script! We're talking about a Nigerian here, latin script. So what does your transliteration algorithm do now? Also, what good is an arabic transliteration routine on chinese? Yeah, arabs are the principal threat, but not the only target of our interest. Any software we scare our selves into should have use beyond solving the last threat.

No, what's needed is a massive thesaurus. If you're familiar with tagging on websites, it would work similarly. Similar names would be grouped and when a name in the group is entered the search is run using all names in the group. Ex, when "Mehmet" is entered it will see and also search by محمد, mohammed, muhamad, mohamat, etc.

Problem with this is it takes more of an investment from humans, compiling a thesaurus takes more time than writing an algorithm. An advantage beyond soundex or transliteration only type schemes is that you could group concepts. Someone using the local Philippine dialect term for their adopted arabic name for example. 노태우 would be seen as all combinations of Roh Tae Wu and Noh Dae Woo and would also put out a search in chinese script databases for 盧泰愚.


http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2010/01/02/story_2-1-2010_pg3_5>In favor of drone attacks

Quote: "The people of Waziristan are suffering a brutal kind of occupation under the Taliban and al Qaeda. It is in this context that they would welcome anyone, Americans, Israelis, Indians or even the devil, to rid them of the Taliban and al Qaeda. Therefore, they welcome the drone attacks."


Col. Lang was not primarily talking about problems with Arabic name searches in his posting. The real issue is the bureaucratic paralysis that grips the intelligence community and prevents effective action on actionable intelligence. The bureaucratization is compounded by two other factors: So much of our government core functions have been outsourced to private for-profit contractors that many of the government employees are relegated to the role of project managers. You can't expect private for-profite corporations to put national security needs above the balance sheet. This has increased the corruption factor into something that is so engrained and institutionalized, that it is almost beyond repair. I am now convinced that the whole idea of outsourcing, including combat support functions, is a way of avoiding a return to the draft, which would make it impossible to go running off on imperial adventures everytime someone sticks a firecracker in their underwear.

The second problem, as I hear it, is that the caliber of the new generation coming into the intelligence community is poor, especially in terms of the kinds of people who are qualified to do real humint.

So, I think that Col. Lang is right on the BIG PICTURE issue. All the computer tracking of Arabic names in the world won't make us any safer if we don't crack the big nut here.

And yes, I understand that John Brennan is a part of the problem. Remember, he was George Tenet's darling, and actually was Tenet's chief of staff when all the Agency objections to the Iraq WMD lies were betrayed.

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