WASHINGTON — The U.S. has checked social media in some capacity in refugee cases and has found, in a small sampling thus far, the information can be ambiguous in screening value and frequently inaccessible to reviewers, a Homeland Security official testified Thursday.
Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that such checks aren’t being done in an abundant manner, and he was not specific about when or how it would occur.
Lawmakers are trying to ascertain which safeguards are in place to ensure that extremists are not exploiting a variety of legal paths to travel to the United States. At issue is how closely the U.S. government examines the backgrounds of people asking to come to the country, including reviewing their social media postings.
One of the San Bernardino, California, shooters came to the U.S. on a K-1 fiance visa last year despite the fact that the FBI believed she was already radicalized.
Tashfeen Malik came to the U.S. on a K-1 fiance visa in July 2014 and passed multiple background checks and at least two in-person interviews, one in Pakistan and another after she married Syed Farook. Nonetheless, as the shooting attack that killed 14 people unfolded, a pledge of allegiance for Malik and Farook to the leader of the Islamic State group was posted on a Facebook page she maintained. The page was under an alias, and the pledge went undiscovered for a day.
FBI Director James Comey said Malik and Farook communicated privately online about jihad and martyrdom before they married.
Lawmakers at times angrily pressed officials on why even public social media wouldn’t routinely be looked at for vetting those trying to enter the country.
“If half the employers are doing it in the United States of America, if colleges are doing it for students, why wouldn’t Homeland Security do it?” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Massachusetts. “We don’t even look at their public stuff. That’s what kills me.”
DHS launched three pilot programs specifically aimed at reviewing social media postings as part of the immigration vetting process.
“There is less there that is actually of screening value than you would expect; at least in small early samples, some things seem more ambiguous than clear,” Rodriguez told lawmakers Thursday. He said foreign alphabets frequently used in social media posts were a challenge to translate.
Rodriguez raised the idea of adding social media reviews to all security procedures.
“We all continue to believe there’s a potential for there to be information of screening value … particularly in high risk environments,” Rodriguez said, adding, “These security tools are ones we need to think about using across all our lines of business,” not just refugee and K-1 visas.
Both DHS and the State Department are reviewing the process for vetting visa applications, including the K-1 program, and have been directed by the White House to create specific recommendations for improvements.
DHS is specifically reviewing policies on when authorities at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can look at social media posts as part of the process for evaluating applications for certain visas.
“There are some legal limits to what we can do,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Wednesday. He added that he thinks reviews of social media should be done more often, but did not provide specifics.
Michele Thoren Bond, assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, said the U.S. continues to match new threat information with the records of visa waivers and revoke visas if necessary based on that information.
Bond said the U.S. has revoked more than 122,000 visas since 2001, including 9,500 because of ties to terrorism.
Under questioning, Bond said that if a consular officer has a question about a visa applicant or information the applicant provided, social media may be used to confirm the detail. But Bond said the agency is looking at broader social media use during all applicant processing, not just K-1, as part of its review following the San Bernardino attack.