US Government Might Check Social Media Posts Before Granting Visas
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working on a plan to scrutinize social media posts of people applying for visa to enter the US, a person familiar with the matter said. The motive behind this alleged plan follows the tragic shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California that left 14 dead and many injured.
The State Department said that “obviously things went wrong” in the visa background check for one of the San Bernardino shooters, due to a secret U.S. policy that prohibits immigration officials from reviewing the social media messages of foreign citizens applying for U.S. visas. They were referring to not looking at purported evidence of Tashfeen Malik’s radicalization online.
“It’s difficult to say exactly what [went wrong] and how, but for an individual to be able to come into this country – one who the FBI has maintained had terrorist tendencies or affiliations or sympathies at least for a couple years, and then to propagate an attack like that on our own soil, obviously, I think it’s safe to say there’s going to be lessons learned here,” State Department spokesperson John Kirby told reporters.
Fearing a civil liberties backlash and “bad public relations” for the Obama administration, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson refused in early 2014 to end the secret U.S. policy, even though several other officials in the organization pressed for such a policy change, ABC News reported Monday.
John Cohen, a former acting under-secretary at DHS for intelligence and analysis and currently, a national security consultant for ABC News said “During that time period immigration officials were not allowed to use or review social media as part of the screening process.” He said that he pressed for a change in 2014 that would allow a review of social media messages posted publically as terror group followers increasingly turned to Twitter and Facebook.
Cohen, who left DHS in June 2014, told ABC News, “Immigration, security, law enforcement officials recognized at the time that it was important to more extensively review public social media postings because they offered potential insights into whether somebody was an extremist or potentially connected to a terrorist organization or a supporter of the movement.”
Marsha Catron, a spokesperson for the DHS told ABC News that months after Cohen left, in the fall of 2014, the Department began three pilot programs to include social media in vetting, but current officials say that it is still not a widespread policy. A review of the broader policy is already underway, the DHS said.
The revelation comes as members of Congress question why U.S. officials failed to review the social media posts of San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik. In May 2014, she received a U.S. visa, despite what the FBI said were extensive social media messages about jihad and martyrdom.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., demanded on Sunday that the U.S. immediately initiate a program that would check the social media sites of those admitted on visas.”
“Had they checked out Tashfeen Malik,” the senator said, “maybe those people in San Bernardino would be alive.”
Cohen said that officials from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement both pressed for a change in policy, which eventually became the subject of a meeting in 2014 chaired by Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, other top deputies and representatives of the DHS Office of Civil Liberties and the Office of Privacy.
“The primary concern was that it would be viewed negatively if it was disclosed publicly and there were concerns that it would be embarrassing,” Cohen told ABC’s Good Morning America on Monday.
Cohen added that he and other officials were deeply disappointed that the senior leadership would not approve a review of what were publicly-posted online messages.
“There is no excuse for not using every resource at our disposal to fully vet individuals before they come to the United States,” Cohen said.
A former senior counter-terrorism official, who participated in the 2014 discussion, said, “Why the State Department and Homeland Security Department have not leveraged the power of social media is beyond me.”
“They felt looking at public postings [of foreign U.S. visa applicants] was an invasion of their privacy,” the official told ABC News. “The arguments being made were, and are still, in bad faith.”
Disclosures by Edward Snowden about National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance policies caused concern of bad public relations that would affect the U.S. government’s standing with civil rights groups and European allies, said Cohen.
“It was primarily a question of optics,” said Cohen. “There were concerns from privacy and civil liberties perspectives that while this was not illegal, that it would be viewed negatively if it was disclosed publicly.”
Cohen said he and others were deeply disturbed by the decision that the senior leadership would not approve a review of what were publicly-posted online messages.
“If we don’t look and don’t review, we don’t know,” he said.
Officials said it is not clear that her support for terror groups would have become known even if the U.S. conducted a full review of her online traffic, as Malik used a pseudonym in her online messages.
DHS’s Catron told ABC News the Department is “actively considering additional ways to incorporate the use of social media review in its various vetting programs,” while keeping an eye on privacy concerns.
“The Department will continue to ensure that any use of social media in its vetting program is consistent with current law and appropriately takes into account civil rights and civil liberties and privacy protections,” Catron said.
According to the State Department records, the U.S. government issued nearly 10 million non-immigrant visas in 2014, over 40,000 of which were K-1 fiancé visas like the one Malik used to enter the country.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Monday the Homeland Security and State departments have been asked to review the process for screening people who apply for visas and to return with specific recommendations. It is not clear whether this method of screening will be implemented or how it will be implemented.