Immigration officials prohibited from looking at visa applicants' social media

Greg Nash

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.

Johnson decided to keep the prohibition in place in early 2014 because he feared a civil liberties backlash and “bad public relations,” according to ABC.

“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.

The scrutiny of the policy comes after U.S. officials learned that Tashfeen Malik, one of the shooters in San Bernardino, Calif., posted a message on Facebook declaring allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria before carrying out an attack that killed 14 people.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) demanded Sunday that the U.S. immediately start a program to review social media sites of those admitted on visas. 
"Had they checked out Tashfeen Malik ... maybe those people in San Bernardino would be alive," he said, according to ABC News. 

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. 
"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 with "Good Morning America."  
"There is no excuse for not using every resource at our disposal to fully vet individuals before they come to the United States," he added. 
Another former senior counterterrorism official vouched for Cohen's retelling: "They felt looking at public postings [of foreign U.S. visa applicants] was an invasion of their privacy." 

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. 
"It was primarily a question of optics," Cohen said. "There were concerns from a privacy and civil liberties perspective that while this was not illegal, that it would be viewed negatively if it was disclosed publicly."

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.