A secret U.S. policy that prohibits immigration officials from reviewing the social media messages of foreign citizens applying for U.S. visas was reportedly kept in place over fears of a civil liberties backlash and “bad public relations.”
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson refused in early 2014 to end the 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 the Department of Homeland Security and currently a national security consultant for ABC News, said he pushed 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.
“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, who left DHS in June 2014, told ABC News.
Cohen’s account comes as members of Congress question why U.S. officials failed to review the social media posts of San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik.
Malik received a U.S. visa in May 2014, despite what the FBI said were extensive social media messages about jihad and martyrdom.
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,” told ABC News.
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.
“I think the president’s top priority here is the national security and safety of the American people,” Earnest said. “And that will continue to be the case with ensuring that this K-1 visa program is effectively implemented.”
Malik came to the United States in 2014 on a K-1, or fiancé, visa.
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.
The department said three pilot programs to specifically incorporate “appropriate” social media reviews into its vetting process were launched in the last year and the department is looking at other ways to use social media posts.
The DHS is working on a plan to scrutinize social media posts as
part of its visa application process before certain people are allowed entry into the nation, a person familiar with the matter told the Wall Street Journal on Monday.
The move is part of a new focus on the use of social networking sites following the shooting rampage in San Bernardino, Calif., the person told the Journal.
The pilot programs currently used by DHS do not sweep up all social media posts, though government officials have kept details of the programs closely held, as they do not want to reveal the precise process they use to try and identify potential threats.
On Sunday, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., demanded 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,” he said, “maybe those people in San Bernardino would be alive.”
Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that Farook was radicalized as early as 2010 and Malik as far back as 2012, which would have been years before her visa 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.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said Monday that the committee is working on legislation that would require online information, including social media accounts, be reviewed as part of the background check for visa applicants, including K-1 visas.
Allowing visa vetters to review social media postings however is no guarantee that a would-be immigrant who has radicalized views will be discovered. Facebook and Twitter users can make their pages private and aliases are routinely employed.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., 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.
Representatives with the technology industry 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report