John McCain Demands Homeland Security Vets Social Media of Visa Applicants, Introduces Legislation
Sayed Farook and Tashfeen Malik
**Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect new information about what was and was not available on Tashfeen Malik's Facebook wall.
After the damning revelation that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security doesn’t check the social media history of visa applicants as a matter of policy, Arizona U.S. Senator John McCain introduced legislation to change that – albeit with more than a few slights at President Obama.
“Following the tragedy in San Bernardino, we have learned that the Obama administration has declined to review information available on social media platforms to screen for threats from foreign nationals seeking to enter the United States,” McCain said in a statement.
“This purposeful refusal to examine publicly available information defies belief, especially as we grapple with complex technical questions to address the problem of criminals and terrorists ‘going dark,’ or utilizing readily available encryption to escape court-ordered government search.”
A recent ABC News investigation found that the DHS has a “secret policy” prohibiting agents from scrutinizing social media accounts of visa applicants because the department fears that an outcry over civil liberties and privacy violations would foment a major public relations backlash.
According to ABC, the practice came up for review in 2014, but senior level DHS officials refused to change it. (DHS has a pilot program to include social media in the overall visa vetting process, but ABC reports that it’s “not widespread.”)
That the policy exists has come to light in the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attacks earlier this month that left 14 dead and 21 injured.
Tashfeen Malik, one of the two attackers, came to the U.S. on a fiancé visa – which requires multiple background checks. It’s been widely reported that her Facebook page included publicly available posts about jihad and her support of ISIS, though that has been discredited.
As it turns out, she "sent at least two private messages on Facebook to a small group of Pakistani friends in 2012 and 2014, pledging her support for Islamic jihad and saying she hoped to join the fight one day," reports the LA Times. These messages would not have been readily available to a DHS employee.
“Obviously things went wrong,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby at a press conference earlier this week. “It’s difficult to say exactly what, [but] I think it’s safe to say there’s going to be lessons learned here.”
Others, like New York U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer were more direct: "Had they checked out Tashfeen Malik, maybe those people in San Bernardino would be alive.”
Intro'd commonsense bill requiring DHS to review social media & public info of foreigners seeking to enter US: https://t.co/W0I8oH0XwT— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) December 15, 2015
“It is unacceptable that Congress has to legislate on this, and that it wasn’t already the Department of Homeland Security’s practice to take such commonsense steps when screening individuals entering this country,” McCain said in announcing his legislation to close the social media loophole.
“This is just the latest, unfortunate example of this administration’s refusal to proactively address very real threats to our national security. It is critical that we have the strongest policies and procedures in place for background checks that reflect the evolving security threats facing our nation.”
Read McCain's bill:
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.