- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Obama administration claimed a mulligan on terrorism Thursday, saying it will go back and retroactively re-examine visas it already issued under the fiance program, trying to spot other would-be terrorists after this month’s San Bernardino, California, attack.

And officials said they’re moving as quickly as possible to ramp up screening of social media, after reports that Tashfeen Malik sent radical messages via email and private notes that the government missed during the review process for her K-1 fiancee visa, issued in 2014. She and her U.S.-born fiance would marry, pledge loyalty to the Islamic State and then massacre 14 people and wound 22 others at his workplace earlier this month.

State Department and Homeland Security officials promised “retrospective background checks” on a “subset” of those they admitted on K-1 visas, but didn’t say how broad the reviews would be.

The announcement came as federal investigators charged Enrique Marquez, a friend of Malik’s husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, with conspiring to support terrorism by purchasing the firearms the couple used in the attack and lying about his intent.

According to an affidavit filed to support the charges, Farook helped Mr. Marquez convert to Islam and adopt radical views, in part by listening to lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and imam who was killed as an enemy combatant by an American drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

Mr. Marquez was also charged with immigration fraud for what investigators said was a sham marriage to aid a relative of Farook in staying in the country.

The sham marriage was another black eye for an immigration service trying to regain its footing after it issued the visa that allowed Malik into the country, despite apparently having made radical statements on social media.

Obama administration officials are scrambling to answer furious lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who are increasingly rejecting administration assurances that it has the situation under control.

Topping lawmakers’ demands is insistence that both departments begin screening all social media postings of those they are planning to admit from risky countries.

“We should have said we want your social media, your private and your public stuff,” said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, Massachusetts Democrat, at a House oversight hearing. “That’s entirely reasonable to ask people who are coming from countries that are known to sponsor terrorism.”

Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which approves fiancee visas, said they have tried three separate pilot programs and plan to expand their social media screening soon — but he also tried to tamp down on the value of doing it.

“There is less there that is actually of screening value than you would expect, at least in those small early samples,” Mr. Rodriguez testified. “Some of the things that we have seen have been more ambiguous than clear.”

He also said they are running into problems with postings being in a foreign alphabet — Malik’s messages were in Urdu — and people hiding their social media presence from public view, which he said means the government might not see it even if they go looking for it.

Mr. Rodriguez and Alan Bersin, assistant secretary for international affairs at Homeland Security, vehemently denied there was a secret policy banning scrutiny of social media — contradicting an ABC report earlier this week.

Still, both men acknowledged they were not yet reviewing social media in most cases.

The Washington Times raised the issue of social media screening in a report last year, finding that a policy to allow regular social media screening had been drafted as far back as 2011 — but it had been halted by department leaders who never followed through on it.

Louis “Don” Crocetti Jr., who drafted the policy as the head of USCIS’ fraud unit, said he had it all ready to go just before his retirement in early fall 2011, and had figured it had been implemented after he left, but was shocked to find out that never happened.

Mr. Crocetti, who now runs the Immigration Integrity Group consultancy, told The Times screening social media is not a cure-all, and given the publicly known facts about Malik, the San Bernardino shooter, it’s not clear the posts Homeland Security would have accessed would have screened her out.

Still, he said it’s “an invaluable tool” for raising flags in the minds of adjudicators — particularly in cases where an applicant is from a country with heightened risk of terrorist recruitment.

Particularly in cases of potential marriage fraud, having access to social media can tell adjudicators more about the relationship between the people involved.

Screening social media has proved to be a thorny issue throughout the government. Social Security administrative law judges have asked for a ban on reviewing social media in disability cases to be overturned, saying they could catch clearly able-bodied folks — based on the photos they post — who were trying to bilk the system by claiming to be disabled.

And analysts have said screening social media should be an integral part of background checks to grant secret clearances to government workers.

One key issue confronting policymakers is what level of scrutiny should be allowed. Mr. Crocetti said his policy would have followed the same standards that are used in basic police work, where officers are able to act based on what they see in plain view. In the case of social media, that would mean looking at what people post publicly, but it would prohibit setting up accounts and befriending people to try to get a look at the posts they keep private.

Mr. Rodriguez, the current chief of USCIS, said his agency is preparing to ramp up its social media screening beyond the “thousands” of applications — out of millions filed each year — that it’s reviewing right now under a pilot program.

Congress may not wait for that. Lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol are working on legislation to add a full social media review to the list of checks officers must make before awarding a visa or approving an immigration benefit.

Others said the administration should take those steps on its own, and waved aside Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s fears of treading on privacy rights, expressed in an interview with insider politics news outlet Politico earlier this week.

“The U.S. Constitution does not apply to foreign nationals seeking entry into the United States,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, California Democrat. “I want to know why you can’t, starting tomorrow, have a departmentwide policy doing this instead of having three small pilot projects.”

Mr. Rodriguez said there were other legal concerns, but he couldn’t list them for lawmakers, saying he was “not the privacy law expert.”

“There are issues that we need to make sure are satisfied with respect, potentially, to treaty obligations that apply, with respect to our own laws that may apply — a variety of issues,” he said.

The Obama administration has tried to keep a tight rein on changes in the wake of the California and Paris terrorist attacks, shooting down most of the ideas coming from Congress and insisting it can handle things.

Administration officials said Thursday they are still finishing a review of what went wrong in San Bernardino, but said other changes could involve adding more interviews or changing where they come in the review process.

The stiff-arming is beginning to wear thin on Capitol Hill, however.

“I don’t think we’re doing a good job,” Mr. Lynch said. “We can be smart and then we can be compassionate. But right now, it doesn’t seem like we’re doing either.”

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