By Kristina Wong - 12/14/15 09:10 AM EST
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson decided against ending a secret U.S. policy that prohibits immigration officials from reviewing social media posts of foreigners applying for U.S. visas, according to a report by ABC News.
“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 undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security for intelligence and analysis, told ABC News.
One current and one former senior counterterrorism official confirmed Cohen’s account to ABC.
A DHS spokesman told ABC News that in the fall of 2014 after Cohen left, the department began three pilot programs to include social media in vetting, but officials say it's still not a widespread policy and a review is underway.
Cohen said he and other U.S. officials had pressed for a policy change in 2014 but top officials with the DHS's Office of Civil Liberties and the Office of Privacy opposed it.
Cohen said there were concerns over the U.S. government's standing with civil rights groups and European allies after National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden disclosed surveillance policies.
DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron said 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.
"The Department will continue to ensure that any use of social media in its vetting program is consistent with current law and appropriately takes into account civil rights and civil liberties and privacy protections," Catron said.
The State Department, which helps to screen visa applicants along with the Department of Homeland Security, occasionally reviews applicants’ social media accounts, spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday.
“It is routine for our consular officers to be able to examine social media presence when they feel it can round out and put a little bit more flesh on the bone of the information and the context that they’re trying to gain about people when applying for visas,” Kirby said.
However, he warned that privacy settings and the use of pseudonyms — which may or may have been in place on Malik’s account — can make that process difficult.
President Obama last week announced that his administration was reviewing screening measures of the K-1 fiancée visa program that Malik used to enter the U.S.
Social media is “a piece of this process that I think you can safely assume we’ll be looking out going forward,” Kirby said on Monday, hinting at the possibility of making the social media screenings mandatory.
“I don’t want to rule out the fact that there may be changes coming down the pike here, with respect to social media.”
- Julian Hattem contributed. This story was updated at 3:25 p.m.