Lawmakers Demand Screening of Refugee Social Media Posts

  • Democrats join Republicans in criticism after San Bernardino
  • U.S. officials cite 9,500 visas revoked over terrorism links

Democrats joined Republicans in denouncing the Obama administration Thursday for what they called inadequate screening of refugees and visitors, pressing for more scrutiny of applicants’ social-media postings after the deadly shootings in San Bernardino, California.

“Islamic State uses social media to recruit,” Representative Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, said at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “We don’t have a regular, widespread requirement that our people review the social media of people coming from troubled areas. That’s a major problem.”

When administration officials described three pilot programs under way to examine social media, Lynch called that "happy talk” for a policy that’s “not regular, it’s not routine, it’s not widespread."

Demands for tighter government screening of online activity by potential terrorists have been fueled by reports that the couple who carried out the attack in California, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, used social media to show their support for Islamic State well before the shooting that killed 14 people and injured 21 others.

But FBI director James Comey has said no evidence has been uncovered of public postings that would have drawn attention from intelligence or law enforcement agencies. Instead, he said Farook, who was born in the U.S., and Malik, who emigrated from Pakistan, used private, direct messages to talk about jihad and martyrdom.

Visa Screening

Shortly before the attack, a pledge of allegiance to Islamic State was posted on a Facebook page maintained by Malik, who entered the U.S. on a fiancée visa in 2014. President Barack Obama has directed the State and Homeland Security departments to review the screening that preceded Malik’s visa.

Michele Bond, the State Department’s assistant secretary for consular affairs, said at the hearing that her agency has revoked more than 122,000 visas since 2001 for a variety of reasons, including almost 9,500 for suspected links to terrorism.

Members of the House committee focused on potential loopholes in the screening process for visitors to the U.S., questioning at one point why an FBI terrorist watch list isn’t shared with Transportation Security Administration officials who do the hands-on screening of travelers at airports and other transportation hubs.

Representative Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who heads the committee, said an estimated 15 million people are in the U.S. illegally and that about 400,000 people illegally overstay their visas every year. "These numbers beg the question of whether the United States is doing enough to vet the people coming here," he said.

Lawmakers questioned the officials about an MSNBC report that in 2011 the administration rejected a proposal to have customs officials vet visa applicants’ social-media accounts. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has cited legal limits that restrict U.S. officials’ ability to examine social media.

‘Starting Tomorrow’

"The U.S. Constitution does not apply to foreign nationals seeking entry to the United States," said Democratic Representative Ted Lieu of California, who asked why the Department of Homeland Security couldn’t institute a department-wide policy "starting tomorrow."

Leon Rodriguez, director of Citizenship and Immigration Services within DHS, told the committee "there is not now, nor was there ever, a secret policy prohibiting social media for vetting." He added, though, that "there needs to be a structure for doing these things."

Rodriguez said the department is ramping up the three pilot programs "to use social media in a thoughtful manner," though he said the ability to do so could be curtailed by treaties and existing law.

"More and more, the threat is from individuals" who have been radicalized online, he said. Rodriguez said he wanted to be cautious about discussing use of social media in screening because "the more we speak about it, the more those who use it will cease to use it."

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