WASHINGTON (CN) – With new evidence showing that one of the San Bernardino killers showed terrorist leanings in private Facebook messages, a House committee grilled immigration officials Thursday on how the government screens social media.
The hearing before the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform today came one day after FBI Director James Comey said that any statements the San Bernardino shooters made in support of terrorism took place in private messages and were not public.
Leon Rodriguez, the head of U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, assured the committee Thursday that his agency has long used social media to screen certain groups seeking immigration benefits.
In addition to testing social media as a screening tool in two small pilot projects, USCIS has also launched a third pilot, applying it to thousands of individuals, said Rodriguez, whose agency is under the Department of Homeland Security.
Though Rodriguez did not specify the “particular categories” of people the pilots test, he said the results have been ambiguous.
“There is less there that is actually of screening value than you would expect, at least in those small, early samples,” he said. “Some of the things we’ve seen have been more ambiguous than clear.”
Some lawmakers proved incensed, however, that social-media screenings would not include a person’s private communications to their contacts.
A leaked Department of Homeland Security memo, as reported Wednesday by NBC, has fueled this controversy, with Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz saying the document shows that the Obama administration secretly prohibits Homeland Security from using social media in its screening process.
Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, is part of bipartisan group of lawmakers who suggest that a more robust social-media screening would have flagged Tashfeen Malik, one of shooters behind this month’s terrorist attack in California.
Though FBI investigators believe Malik had radicalized before coming to the United States over a year ago on a K-1 fiancee visa, Chaffetz said “she cleared each check.”
“No red flags were raised,” he added.
Claiming that immigration authorities chose not to use social media in screening Malik, Chaffetz said “they made the wrong call.”
“They made the really wrong call.”
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., told USCIS director Rodriguez on Thursday that foreign nationals are not entitled to privacy when it comes to their social-media messages.
He said Homeland Security needs to reverse its secret policy immediately.
Rodriguez said the argument misapprehends the facts.
“There is not now nor was there ever a secret policy prohibiting use of social media for vetting,” Rodriguez said.
“I’m not sure I accept the premise that somehow we are safeguarding foreign nationals to a greater degree,” he added.
Despite Rodriguez’s pronouncements, other congressmen joined the call for more social-media monitoring.
“If half the employers in America are doing that in the private sector, if the colleges are doing it for students, why the hell wouldn’t the Department of Homeland Security do it if someone is coming … from a country that sponsors terrorism?” asked Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Democrat from Massachusetts.
“It would seem to be, dare I say, a no-brainer.”
Rodriguez and Alan Bersin with the Office of Policy both said they were unaware of the existence of any Homeland Security policy that would prevent the use of social media for screening.
The leaked and redacted Homeland Security memo says that some social media sites might be blocked to maintain employee productivity, but does not say that employees cannot access social media for verification purposes.
“Because of their potential to contain information that could help USCIS verify information related to applications and petitions, USCIS may, where appropriate, authorize certain agency personnel to access social networking sites for verification purposes,” the document says.
It instructs employees to direct questions about accessing social media through the chain of command. The memo – in a heavily redacted section – appears to restrict the use of social media to publically available information. Redactions in the sections outlining more specifics about the policy make those portions impenetrable.
Lawmakers also grilled the panel of witnesses on the number of travelers who have overstayed U.S. visas, following up on themes from a subcommittee hearing last week on the U.S. policy of waiving visas for travelers from certain foreign countries.
After much wrangling at that hearing, Kelli Ann Burriesci with Homeland Security had told a House Government & Oversight Reform subcommittee that roughly 2 percent of travelers in the U.S. from visa-waiver countries overstay their visas.
Though Bersin failed to provide a specific number of overstays for the committee Thursday, he confirmed the 2 percent figure.
Rep. Lynch told the committee Thursday that this amounts to about 400,000 people, out of the 20 million visa-waiver travelers the U.S. receives each year.
Michele Thoren Bond, with the Bureau of Consular Affairs, said the U.S. matches new-threat information against records of visa-waiver travelers, and revokes visas when necessary.
Since 2001, the U.S. has revoked more than 120,000 visas, Bond said. That included 9,500 of people with suspected ties to terrorism.
Chaffetz scolded the panel for being unable to say with certainty how many of them remained in the U.S., noting that some of the attackers behind the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2011, had overstayed their visas.
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