Visa screeners ignoring social media gets review after San Bernardino

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration may broaden social media reviews for visa applicants to close security gaps in the screening system, the White House said Monday.

Reviews of procedures used by the Homeland Security and State departments have been ordered and recommendations requested for changes in the process for screening people who apply for visas, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, the Associated Press reported.

The announcement came as ABC News reported that administration officials reaffirmed in early 2014 a “secret U.S. policy” that barred immigration officials from reviewing social media accounts of visa applicants, citing current and former officials. It said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson refused to end the policy, “fearing a civil liberties backlash and ‘bad public relations’ for the Obama administration.”

Tashfeen Malik, a Pakistani woman who carried out an attack with her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 people Dec. 2, came to the U.S. in 2014 on a K-1, or fiancé, visa. She had reportedly posted sentiments online indicating support for Islamic militants and saying she wanted to join their fight against the U.S. before applying for the visa, but those posts went unnoticed by screeners.

The New York Times on Saturday reported that Homeland Security screeners don’t routinely review social media accounts during background checks of visa applicants, and noted a debate within the department about “whether it is even appropriate to do so.”

Critics said the omission amounted to a dereliction of duty. Others said the policy was delusional.

John Cohen, a former acting under-secretary at DHS for intelligence and analysis and now an ABC News national security consultant, said he and other officials in the Obama administration pressed for changes to let immigration and visa screeners check social media. He cited the fact that many terror group followers and sympathizers use online resources such as Facebook, Twitter and other sites to show their allegiance and communicate.

“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,” Cohen told the network Monday. He left DHS in June 2014.

Other administration officials objected, he said, and they won the argument, at the time.

“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 said, citing objections from Homeland Security’s civil liberties and privacy offices.

A Homeland Security Department spokeswoman, Marsha Catron, told ABC News that some things have changed since Cohen left the agency last year. But other officials said social media accounts still aren’t reviewed in most cases.

“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 in a statement to ABC News. She said several pilot programs had been started to examine social media after Cohen left the agency, and a broader review is under way.

Separately, the department said it is specifically reviewing policies on when authorities at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can look at social media posts as they screen would-be immigrants applying for certain types of visas, particular for people seeking entry as prospective spouses for Americans, AP said.

“I think the president’s top priority here is the national security and safety of the American people,” Earnest said, explaining the administration’s review of the k-1 visa program. “And that will continue to be the case with ensuring that this K-1 visa program is effectively implemented.”

Earnest did not provide specifics of the security review for visas, but said one consideration going forward is resources. The government approved more than 9.9 million visa applications during the 2014 budget year, and the Times said a concern in adding social media reviews is whether that may further bog down the k-1 visa application process.

The department said three pilot programs to specifically incorporate “appropriate” social media reviews into its screening process have begun during the past year, according to AP. It also said the department is looking at other ways to examine and use social media posts.

Malik’s background check included at least one in-person interview in Pakistan and another after marrying Farook, who was born to Pakistani immigrants in Illinois. Malik also had to provide fingerprints and a variety of background information, AP reported. Authorities also checked her out using intelligence and law enforcement databases. Nothing was found to indicate she had terrorist sympathies.

But she gave an incorrect or incomplete home address in her K-1 application, as Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, has pointed out, and that failed to trigger any greater scrutiny.

The day after the San Bernardino attack, Facebook found a post on a page maintained by Malik pledging her and Farook’s allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State. The page was under a different name, however.

Authorities have said Malik and Farook exchanged messages about jihad and martyrdom online before they were married and while she lived in Pakistan.

The history of Malik’s radicalization and her apparent online discussions about jihad have raised concerns about how she was able to pass a background check that the government has described as rigorous.

Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday that Farook was radicalized as early as 2010 and Malik as far back as 2012 – years before her visa application was processed.

“We want to look at how our immigration process for a visa for a spouse broke down, that they didn’t notice the radicalization,” Burr said.

Certain Homeland Security officials are currently allowed to look at social media posts as part of law enforcement investigations. The possible policy changes are being considered at the department’s agency in charge of managing immigration cases and interviewing green card applicants.

Malik was interviewed by the agency after marrying Farook.

The FBI has said the couple was not on its radar until after the attacks and the shootout with police hours later that ended in the deaths of both.

“I don’t think there are any indications that there was public use of social media that was missed, and we are looking into other questions about how they may have communicated to each other that avoided our detection,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, after being briefed by law enforcement late last week.

Letting visa application screeners review social media postings is no guarantee that a would-be immigrant who has become radicalized will be discovered, authorities cautioned. Facebook and Twitter users can make their pages private and aliases are routinely employed.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican, introduced legislation last week that would require social media companies to report to law enforcement any “terrorist activity” they became aware of — for example, attack planning, recruiting or the distribution of terrorist material.

But technology industry representatives say that would become a massive new liability for companies, chill free speech online and increase the number of reports funneled to law enforcement, making it difficult to find credible threats. Executives may also fear that they would become regarded by customers as agents of government, which could threaten their businesses.