Immigration

Facebook Check Wouldn't Have Stopped San Bernardino Terrorists, No Matter What GOP Candidates Say

Did an Obama-administration policy prevent the feds from looking at Tashfeen Malik's social-media profiles? Yes and no.

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During Tuesday night's Republican presidential debates, several candidates referenced an alleged Obama administration policy that prevents federal authorities from checking social media profiles of suspected terrorists. Said policy, they suggested, was to blame for the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. As it goes in politics, these debate statements can best be characterized as truthiness—based on actual facts but distorted for maximum blame-casting and fear-mongering potential. In actuality, only immigration officials approving visas—not federal agents investigating terrorism—were barred from social media snooping, and the policy has since been suspended. And even if authorities had checked out San Bernadino shooter Tashfeen Malik's Facebook page, it's unlikely it would have raised any red flags.  

What the candidates said: Asked about Silicon Valley's resistance to helping the FBI "crack encrypted communication from ISIS," Carly Fiorina said it wasn't about metadata but that "the bureaucratic processes that have been in place since 9/11 are woefully inadequate." She continued:  

DHS vets people by going into databases of known or suspected terrorists. And yet, we also know that ISIS is recruiting who are not in those databases. So of course, we're going to miss them. And then we now learn that DHS says, 'No, we can't check their social media.' For heaven's sakes, every parent in America is checking social media and every employer is as well, but our government can't do it. The bureaucratic procedures are so far behind. Our government has become incompetent, unresponsive, corrupt. And that incompetence, ineptitude, lack of accountability is now dangerous.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz disputed Fiorina's characterization slightly, saying "it's not a lack of competence that is preventing the Obama administration from stopping these attacks" but "political correctness." 

We didn't monitor the Facebook posting of the female San Bernardino terrorist because the Obama DHS thought it would be inappropriate. She made a public call to jihad, and they didn't target it. The Tsarnaev brothers, the elder brother made a public call to jihad and the Obama administration didn't target it. … The problem is because of political correctness, the Obama administration, like a lot of folks here, want to search everyone's cell phones and e-mails and not focus on the bad guys. And political correctness is killing people.

During the undercard debate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee used his opening remarks to talk about how Americans were "angry" and "scared," in part because "they realize that our government, who promises that it can vet people and is begging us to approve bringing 10,000 Syrian refugees into this country, can't even catch somebody after a third background check, who had posted things on social media clearly indicating she wanted to kill Americans."

Rick Santorum said he agreed with Huckabee "that we should in fact be looking at people's social media posts. That's just common sense." 

Former New York Gov. George Pataki had the most to say on the subject, telling Wolf Blitzer: 

When that murderer came from Pakistan to San Bernardino and committed those atrocious crimes just a few weeks ago, she applied for a visa. She had posted on social media jihadist messages. Because this administration is so politically correct, they have a rule that they cannot look at social media postings of people applying to come to the United States. That is utterly absurd. One of the things we must do, the next president must do is get rid of that law and make sure we do everything in our power to find out if someone poses a threat to our existence here.

Later, asked about accepting Syrian refugees, Pataki alleged that the Obama administration "vetted the woman who carried out the attacks in San Bernardino and never found out that she had a false address and was on social media talking about radical Jihad." (His answer on accepting any Syrian refugees, by the way, was "no.") 

What they got right: Earlier this week, ABC News reported on a "secret U.S. policy" that blocked immigration officials from looking at the social media posts of visa applicants. Agents working for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) "were not allowed to use or review social media as part of the screening process," John Cohen, a former acting under-secretary for intelligence and analysis with DHS, told ABC News.

It is unclear when this policy went into effect, or who authorized it, but its demise began in late 2014, when DHS "began three pilot programs to include social media in vetting." Tashfeen Malik—the Pakistani immigrant who went on a killing spree with her husband in San Bernardino, California, earlier this month—received a U.S. visa in May 2014, so DHS probably did not investigate her online presence. 

The whole truth: It's unlikely that looking at Malik's social media accounts as part of the visa-screening process would have yielded any different results. The FBI is now reporting that Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, never publicly expressed any support for "jihad and matyrdom" on social media, though officials did turn up such sentiments in the couple's private communications. This means that Cruz, Pataki, et al. are simply wrong that Malik made ISIS-supportive statements that could have been targeted by federal agents, either during the visa screening process or subsequently. 

If Malik had made such statements publicly on Facebook (as rumor originally had it), however, there would have been nothing preventing federal agents from looking into them. Contra the implications of Republican candidates, it is federal immigration officials and only immigration officials who were instructed not to access social-media profiles. There is nothing stopping FBI, CIA, Drug Enforcement Administration, National Security Agency, Internal Revenue Service, or non-immigration DHS agents from tuning into the socia media activity of immigrants or anyone else they suspect of criminal activity. 

The FBI, in fact, uses Facebook all the time in its investigations (as do municipal police departments such as the NYPD). "U.S. law enforcement agents are … going undercover with false online profiles to communicate with suspects and gather private information," the AP reported in 2010 after the Electronic Frontier Foundation obtained an internal Justice Department document about the practice. The feds routinely employ such tactics in investigating everything from gang activity to terrorism, drug sales to sex trafficking. In one 2012 survey, four out of five federal, state, and local law-enforcement agents said they use social media for intelligence-gathering during investigations. (Note that we're not talking about collecting metadata or compelling companies to turn over information but good, old-fashioned subterfuge and digital legwork.) 

One last point of contention: Whatever the shortcomings of prohibiting immigration agents from looking at visa applicants' online accounts, the policy seems rooted more in civil-liberties concerns than "political correctness." While Cohen called the policy "primarily a question of optics," he also stated that "there were concerns from a privacy and civil liberties perspective." Which makes sense: opening up social media profiles to immigration-agent scrutiny may be worth it from a security perspective, but it does also open up legitimate questions about how agents could legally obtain access, what sorts of posts should be disqualifying for visas, etc. While I'm suspicious of why an administration little concerned with privacy and civil liberties should suddenly find them so compelling, dismissing these concerns here as mere "political correctness" is a mistake.

For what it's worth, DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron told ABC News that the department is "actively considering additional ways to incorporate the use of social media review in its various vetting programs." But it "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," she said. 

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  1. “that we should in fact be looking at people’s social media posts. That’s just common sense.”

    Doesn’t everyone already look at everyone else’s social media posts? Or have I misunderstood the entire concept behind social media?

    1. That’s what’s so bizarre about the policy. DHS is effectively saying that warrantless wiretapping is fine, but searching publicly available posts on FB et al is not.

      1. That’s racist racism, yo. Profiling straight up.

  2. Again, I’d distinguish between your garden-variety foreign visitor – who can IMHO be denied for any reason – and the foreign wife of a US citizen man (or foreign husband of a US citizen woman).

    I can’t see how it’s consistent with the 9th Amendment for the government to tell a U.S. citizen that to exercise his/her marital rights, he/she has to go abroad. There’s a right, I believe, to bring one’s spouse into the country subject to the spouse being subject to arrest if charged with an actual crime.

    1. There’s a right, I believe, to bring one’s spouse into the country subject to the spouse being subject to arrest if charged with an actual crime

      True, but the paperwork involved has been absurd for a long time.

      1. I’m talking about how the 9th Amendment *ought* to be read.

        The feds have been known to ignore constitutional rights before.

    2. Why do you hate the gays? What if a US Citizen (man) wants to bring his husband over from Saudi Arabia before the poor fellow gets executed?

  3. “Wow, I’m sure glad I’m a law-abiding moderate Muslim who hates terrorism and loves America. I hope I get a visa!”

    1. “Here is an adorable picture of a baby kissing the American flag.

      “When he becomes a man, he will, inshallah, crush the crusaders and conquer America for Islam…

      “Wait, is this thing still on?

      “I meant to say, here’s a kitten video.

      “I won’t do a puppy video because dogs are filthy, and you Americans are all dogs…

      “Ha ha, there I go again, I’m such a kidder!”

  4. ” ABC News reported on a “secret U.S. policy” that blocked immigration officials from looking at the social media posts of visa applicants. Agents working for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “were not allowed to use or review social media as part of the screening process,” John Cohen, a former acting under-secretary for intelligence and analysis with DHS, told ABC News.”

    I will go on record as saying that this is really dumb.

  5. If the government could just access everything posted by anyone anywhere, they’d be able to keep me safe! Why aren’t we pushing for common sense social media access? If you have nothing to hide, then why not? I don’t use any social media and now I find out that people who do are putting my safety in jeopardy. This is just not fair!

    1. I’ve already said that anybody on the terrorist watch list should forfeit their 3rd and 4th Amendment rights and have a soldier or cop stationed in their home 24/7. It’s just common sense.

      1. Why should anybody on the terrorist watch list even be allowed to have a home? There should be a central location to keep these people. That’s just common sense.

        1. If we could build railroad infrastructure to get them to said central location I think you have the makings of a very passable bill.

          1. Think of all the jerbs you could create!!

        2. Maybe they could be concentrated in a single, temporary location?

          1. Like a camp? Or a trailer?

            1. Maybe Bernie will take them in the the spirit of the Internationale?

  6. “Which makes sense: opening up social media profiles to immigration-agent scrutiny may be worth it from a security perspective, but it does also open up legitimate questions about how agents could legally obtain access, what sorts of posts should be disqualifying for visas, etc. While I’m suspicious of why an administration little concerned with privacy and civil liberties should suddenly find them so compelling, dismissing these concerns here as mere “political correctness” is a mistake.”

    Do non-citizens who aren’t even in the country necessarily have civil liberties?

    Regardless, I don’t see why it has to be one and not the other. Surely, political correctness and concern for privacy could play roles in determining the process.

    1. Civil liberties are human rights. The Bill of Rights limits the ways in which the government can infringe on the rights of anyone (not just US citizens). But anything you post publicly is fair game, and it was dumb not to check it.

  7. Maybe if she mentioned a woodchipper it would have gotten some attention

    1. +1 for misplaced priorities

  8. Let’s just ban Derpbook and make all those people go back to reading supermarket tabloids.

    Where did that quote come from ‘I just love bein mean!’, I can hear the voice but…

  9. I think we need more secret policies that federal agents may or may not have to kind of, sort of follow, and these secret policies must be impossible to source.

    It’s the only way to keep us safe.

  10. A Facebook check wouldn’t have stopped dick but I think we can agree a checkbook face could have. And don’t even get me started on a facecheck book.

    The best anagram of “Facebook check”? Heck of a cock.

      1. What is something my mother said to me before she sent me off to college?

        1. “Facebook check and don’t stick it in crazy”?

          1. Wise freaking words right there

      2. Or for the benefit of this article’s author, “Heck of a cock, EB”

  11. People need to learn to accept that bad things happen in a free society. The only way you achieve full “security” is in a police state.

    It’s like Lenore says, yeah playing in the park causes a very small increase in risk, but do you let your kid be a kid, or just lock them up inside all day?

    1. This is exactly why libertopia will never happen. People aren’t scared of a “police state.” They’re frogs in a boiling pot on that issue. They’re scared that their kid will become the next Jon Benet Ramsey or their family will be gunned down in the local mall, because that’s what plasters the news sites.

      1. Strangely enough, none of them ever worry that they;re kid will be raped by a cop, shot while sitting one a park bench by a cop, robbed by a cop . . .

        1. Because if we don’t let then murder us we’ll never be safe.

  12. …it is federal immigration officials and only immigration officials who were instructed not to access social-media profiles.

    But that was the whole point in the debate. Checking social media posts for threats against America should be a standard part of the visa review process. It may not have helped in this case, but you can’t fault the candidates for assuming that it would have, after it was widely reported (and apparently misreported) in the media that one of the shooters had made pro-jihad social media posts.

    1. No it’s not “only immigration officials”

      This link is from DHS on it’s “Countering Violent Extremism” policy
      http://www.training.fema.gov/e…..shared/cve do and dont.pdf

  13. the media reported it and the FBI did not counter until after the debate so they were not wrong since they used the most recent available information. Or is the Media lying just to make the GOP look stupid, I wouldn’t put it past them. Context and timing before claiming falsehoods

  14. My question is how on earth can the govt enforce this rule on its employees? Don’t they all have personal phones/laptops at home? Do they pinkie swear not to check their smartphones?

  15. When your argument why the government should not review public sources of information rests entirely upon a counterfactual it is very hard to take you seriously.

  16. Okay, Elizabeth, you admit this–

    ABC News reported on a “secret U.S. policy” that blocked immigration officials from looking at the social media posts of visa applicants. Agents working for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “were not allowed to use or review social media as part of the screening process,” John Cohen, a former acting under-secretary for intelligence and analysis with DHS, told ABC News.

    And yet say that they were wrong? The policy existed. It existed when she was getting her visa. Did it prevent them from seeing anything inflammatory on her social media–absolutely. It does matter that the FBI is CYAing and saying that there’s nothing there–when it mattered, the law said we couldn’t look.

    So the only person wrong here…….is you.

  17. Eliazabeth Brown simply can’t be this stupid. Or can she?

  18. I figured the whole subject was a con to convince our public that their facebook posts weren’t instantly data-mined. They probably detected a slow-down of honest traffic, or secure/private competitors are starting to score.

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