Secret US Policy Blocks Agents from Looking at Social Media of Visa Applicants, Former Official Says

Brian Ross et al., ABC News, December 14, 2015

Fearing a civil liberties backlash and “bad public relations” for the Obama administration, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson refused in early 2014 to end a secret U.S. policy that prohibited immigration officials from reviewing the social media messages of all foreign citizens applying for U.S. visas, a former senior department official said.

“During that time period immigration officials were not allowed to use or review social media as part of the screening process,” John Cohen, a former acting under-secretary at DHS for intelligence and analysis. Cohen is now a national security consultant for ABC News.

One current and one former senior counter-terrorism official confirmed Cohen’s account about the refusal of DHS to change its policy about the public social media posts of all foreign applicants.

A spokesperson for the DHS, Marsha Catron, 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. She received a U.S. visa in May 2014, despite what the FBI said were extensive social media messages about jihad and martyrdom.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., demanded 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.”

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Cohen said the issue reached a head at a heated 2014 meeting 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 said in an interview broadcast on “Good Morning America” today.

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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.

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