Department of Homeland Security officials are insisting that they do sometimes look at the social media accounts of immigrants and travelers headed to the United States after several reports have suggested otherwise.
Yet the searches are only occasional, officials acknowledged, and social media is not routinely included in screenings of visa applicants coming to the U.S.
The DHS policy is upsetting lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who appear intent on making the searches mandatory.
“It needs to not just be pilot programs. It needs to be a policy of our government to look at social media,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said in a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Thursday.
Working with intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the department has already completed two small pilot programs incorporating social media, the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told lawmakers.
Now it’s working on a third pilot program, which “is in the process of being applied to literally thousands of applicants for immigration benefits,” agency Director León Rodriguez said.“So any thought that the Department of Homeland Security has simply foregone the use of social media for the purposes of immigration screening is a mistaken thought,” he insisted. “We have not spoken about it in great detail because the fact is that the more we speak about it, the more those who use it will cease to use it, knowing that we will be examining the content.”
A day earlier, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson maintained that an earlier policy restricting searches of social media had been “too restrictive” and had been rolled back “very early this year.”
“Consulting social media is something that as long as I’ve been secretary is something that we need to do and we have begun to do that,” Johnson said.
The department is facing heightened criticism after initial reports that one of the shooters in the Dec. 2 San Bernardino, Calif., massacre had posted public support for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on Facebook. Critics say screeners should have picked up on Tashfeen Malik’s apparent radicalization when she entered the country from Pakistan on a fiancée visa.
FBI Director James Comey debunked those reports on Wednesday, claiming that Malik’s messages discussing extremism only occurred on private messages, not public postings. As a result, federal officials would not have been able to see the messages without a warrant.
Still, critics of the Obama administration aren’t willing to let officials off the hook.
“It was pretty clear now, looking back, that it was well-known among her friends and family that she supported violent jihad against the United States,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said on Thursday.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) insisted that even private information on someone’s social media platform should be handed over before they are granted a visa.
“We should have gotten that anyway,” he said. “That’s entirely reasonable to ask people coming from countries that are known as hotbeds of terrorism. Why aren’t we doing this?”
DHS screening of visa applicants’ social media accounts should be mandatory, Lynch insisted.
“The Islamic State is using social media as a main recruiting tool,” he said.
“Yet when we look at what the Department of Homeland Security is doing, we don’t have a regular, widespread requirement that our people review the social media of people coming from trouble areas where you’ve got a lot of terrorists.”
Early on Thursday, MSNBC reported that the DHS had considered and then rejected a “specific policy” to beef up the screening of foreign visa applicants’ social media accounts in 2011.
The policy proposal appeared to be a “done deal,” one former official told the news network, before it was ultimately killed.
However, there has never been a blanket ban on using social media to screen visa applicants, Rodriguez told the House committee on Thursday.
“I’m not aware there ever having been a policy that prohibited the use of social media,” he claimed.