Last week I wrote about the impulse of federal department heads to cover their, um, backsides when something goes wrong. I also noted that this impulse often has poor results. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano tried to see the silver lining in the botched Christmas Day attack–saying that “the system worked”–only to put herself (and the White House) on defense for the next two weeks, as everyone tried to correct, clarify or otherwise walk back the remarks.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also engaged in a bit of institutional CYA when she announced on January 4, “Based on what we know now, the State Department fully complied with the requirements set forth in the interagency process as to what should be done when a threat is – or when information about a potential threat is known.” It has since become clear that this was not exactly the case.
On Friday, after Obama announced the results of his initial investigation into the botched bombing, State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley said the following, “As the President said yesterday, as Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan said yesterday, mistakes were made. This was a system failure. We are part of that system, and as the report details, there were human errors that were made on our part.”
The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus summarizes the failures in a must-read story today:
They misspelled his name — “a one-letter difference,” an intelligence official said — in filing their first report Nov. 20, the day after Umau Mutallab, a Nigerian banker, described his concerns about his son.
And they didn’t officially look for Abdulmutallab in a department database of U.S. visa-holders.
State Department officials wrote a Visa Viper cable Nov. 20 saying that Mutallab thought his son had become attached to “extremists” and might be in Yemen, and that the father wanted help in trying to locate him to reestablish family relations. The Visa Viper terrorist-reporting program calls for each Foreign Affairs post abroad to identify “potential terrorists and to develop information on those individuals,” according to the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual.
But before the Christmas Day bombing attempt aboard a Detroit-bound airliner, developing such information for a Visa Viper report apparently did not involve searching for the name of a “potential terrorist” in the State Department’s database of people with visas to enter the United States. . . .
Meanwhile, back at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, State Department officials — “out of curiosity” — did check to see whether Abdulmutallab had a visa for entry into the United States, according to a department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter is under investigation. But because the misspelled name was used, the fact that Abdulmutallab had a multi-entrance, two-year tourist visa obtained in June 2008 was not sent to the NCTC or to other intelligence agencies.
To Clinton’s credit, there is no sign that the State Department has been reluctant to change its procedures to correct these problems. At a meeting last week in the Situation Room, Clinton told the president that her department planned to change its procedures for searching visa records, according to an official who was present.