Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson resisted calls last year to allow immigration agents to review visa applicants’ social media activity because of fear of “bad public relations,” according to a former agency official.
“During that time period immigration officials were not allowed to use or view social media as part of the screening process,” John Cohen, a former under-secretary at DHS for intelligence and analysis, told ABC News, where he now works as a national security consultant.
The issue of social media vetting has taken on new significance during the investigation into Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the jihadi couple who killed 14 people in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino earlier this month.
Federal investigators have found that Malik posted jihadi messages on her social media accounts even before she was approved for a K-1 fiancee visa to come to the U.S. last year, The New York Times reported this weekend. (RELATED: Jihadi Bride Passed 3 Visa Background Checks)
The messages were not noticed, even though Malik went through three screening procedures, including face-to-face interviews with immigration agents.
According to Cohen, who left DHS in June 2014, officials with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pushed for a change to DHS’ social media policy but were met with resistance from top brass.
“Immigration, security, law enforcement officials recognized at the time that it was important to more extensively review public social media postings because they offered potential insights into whether somebody was an extremist or potentially connected to a terrorist organization or a supporter of the movement,” Cohen told ABC News during a segment on “Good Morning America.”
Cohen said that top officials at DHS, including deputy secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, discussed greater social media vetting with representatives at the DHS Office of Civil Liberties and the Office of Privacy.
“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 recalled.
“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.
Cohen also said that in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s release of stolen National Security Agency secrets, the Obama administration has been concerned with appearing to trample civil liberties.
“It was primarily a question of optics,” said Cohen. “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.”
Another former counter-terrorism official cosigned Cohen’s frustration.
“Why the State Department and Homeland Security Department have not leveraged the power of social media is beyond me.”
“They felt looking at public postings [of foreign U.S. visa applicants] was an invasion of their privacy,” the official told ABC News, adding that the arguments being made are “in bad faith.”
The revelation is prompting at least one powerful Democratic senator to call for DHS to begin checking visa applicants’ social media accounts.
“Had they checked out Tashfeen Malik maybe those people in San Bernardino would be alive,” said New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.
DHS’ Office of Civil Liberties also came under fire last week when Phil Haney, a former U.S. Customs and Border Protection official, conducted an interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly in which he said that an investigation he was conducting into an Islamist group with ties to Farook’s mosque was shut down because of political correctness. (RELATED: Whistle-Blower: Feds Shut Down Terror Investigation That Could Have Prevented San Bernardino Attack)
Haney said that he had compiled dozens of files on a group with terror ties called Tablighi Jamaat. The organization, founded in Pakistan, was affiliated in some way with Farook’s mosque, Haney said. And according to the whistle-blower, that information could potentially have led to Farook being placed on a terror watch list or a federal “no-fly” list. Doing so would likely have prevented Malik from coming to the U.S.