The San Bernardino terrorists embraced radical Islamist ideology as early as 2013, a full year before the woman arrived in the U.S. on a fiancee visa, raising concerns that officials missed red flags that could have prevented her from being admitted.
FBI Director James B. Comey told Congress on Wednesday that Syed Rizwan Farook and his Pakistan-born wife, Tashfeen Malik, were radicalized before they met one another through an online dating website and that both had talked of jihad and martyrdom.
But none of those indications were picked up when officials vetted the couple as part of Malik’s K-1 fiancee visa, which allowed her to enter the U.S. and get married in 2014, putting her on a path to full citizenship.
“Here we have someone who was talking about jihad for a couple of years,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “Most Americans have the assumption that we are on top of things like this.”
The FBI director also raised several areas where he said officials are concerned. He said the intelligence community believes Islamic State operatives may have the ability to manufacture fraudulent passports that could fool inspectors. He called for technology companies to change a business model that has made encryption the default for much communication — though he didn’t say whether encrypted communications helped the terrorist couple hide their plans.
Obama administration officials fanned out across Capitol Hill Wednesday to try to answer questions about the attack and about Malik’s immigration application. Both Mr. Comey and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Leon Rodriguez refused to get into specifics, saying the ongoing FBI investigation prevented him from disclosing whether they did an in-person interview with Malik or what other steps were involved.
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The level of secrecy didn’t sit well with lawmakers.
“They’re dead, so I don’t know [if] we’re terribly worried about their privacy considerations,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House immigration subcommittee, told Mr. Rodriguez.
He demanded to know which embassy or consular office approved the visa, and what information they had at the time about Malik.
At another hearing, however, administration officials said Malik had gone through all applicable security checks, including an in-person interview, facial recognition screening, a counterterrorism screening by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and fingerprint checks.
“In all cases, the results of those checks were clear. There were no indications of any ill intent,” Edward Ramotowski, deputy assistant secretary of state for visa services.
The couple met online through a dating site, and Malik came to the U.S. a month before the two married in August 2014.
Investigators are still reviewing the couple’s communications in an attempt to determine whether they may have been linked to any known terror cell or group, but their radicalization predates the rise of the Islamic State. Mr. Comey said it is still unknown whether their marriage may have been orchestrated on behalf of any terrorist organization.
“It would be a very, very important thing to know,” the FBI director said.
The terror couple were killed in a gunbattle with police hours after opening fire on a holiday party at the government agency that employed Farook, killing 14 people and injuring 21 others. They left behind a 6-month-old daughter.
Malik’s father, Gulzar Ahmad Malik, on Wednesday told The Associated Press that he condemns and regrets his daughter’s actions.
“I am in such pain that I cannot even describe it,” Mr. Malik said by phone from Saudi Arabia, where his daughter previously lived with the family.
Congress is searching for a way to play a role in boosting U.S. defenses after last month’s orchestrated attack in Paris and the attack here this month. The House has passed bills to set a higher hurdle for bringing Syrian refugees into the U.S., and to impose new checks on potential foreign fighters who hold passports from countries friendly with the U.S. but who might have traveled to Iraq or Syria to train with the Islamic State.
On Wednesday lawmakers pressed the administration for other steps they could take — but were waived off.
Mr. Rodriguez said he’s reviewing his agency’s performance and wouldn’t get into details, but hinted they have already found some areas where they need to do better.
“There are affirmative steps that we are preparing to take now that will certainly enhance our visibility into the backgrounds of certain categories of individuals that seek admission into the United States,” he told the House immigration subcommittee.
Major technology companies such as Apple and Google began encrypting their phones last year, a process that scrambles communications so that it is impossible to read the messages without a key. And law enforcement officials say encryption poses a potential problem for investigators as they ramp up surveillance of suspected Islamic State-inspired operatives in the U.S. to thwart attacks.
To illustrate the problem, Mr. Comey pointed to the planned May attack of an exhibition of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in Garland, Texas. Local law enforcement killed the two heavily armed, radicalized Muslim men as they attempted to storm the exhibition, but Mr. Comey said the investigation after the attack turned up 109 messages that one of the men exchanged with an overseas terrorist.
“And we have no idea what he said because those messages were encrypted,” Mr. Comey said. “To this day, I cannot say what he said to that terrorist. That is a big problem. We have to grapple with it.”
Mr. Comey also emphasized Wednesday that beyond terror threats, encryption is increasingly making it more difficult for local law enforcement agencies to investigate crimes such as homicides, kidnappings and drug conspiracies.
“Encryption is always going to be available to the sophisticated user,” Mr. Comey said. “The problem we face post-Snowden is it’s moved from being available to the sophisticated bad guy to being the default. So it’s now affecting every criminal investigation.”
Even if U.S. lawmakers were to adopt legislation requiring a backdoor to encrypted technology, which Mr. Comey said he does not support, he acknowledged that companies making devices overseas would not have to comply with such laws and that applications offering encryption would still be available to users.
He said he believes U.S. companies have continued to support encryption out of competitive interests, and hopes that officials can get those companies on board to come up with a solution.
“The government hopes to get to a place where, if the government issues an order, the company figures out how to supply that information on its own,” he said. “The government shouldn’t be telling people how to operate their systems.”
On Wednesday, The Press Enterprise of Riverside, California, reported that Enrique Marquez, the 24-year-old man who legally bought assault rifles used in the San Bernardino massacre, had close ties to the family of the husband-and-wife killers. Farook once lived next door to Mr. Marquez, and both attended La Sierra High School. They both tinkered with cars, and both had an interest in guns.
Mr. Marquez also was tied to Farook’s family by marriage.
In November 2014 Mr. Marquez married a woman from Russia, Mariya Chernykh, 25, who is the younger sister of the wife of Farook’s older brother, according to Riverside County marriage records.