If terrorist attacks can be prevented simply by screening the social media accounts of those applying to enter to the United States, the Department of Homeland Security should start doing it, according to a Florida Republican behind legislation to make it happen.
“In the wake of the San Bernardino attack, we learned the government does not screen social media accounts of foreigners seeking entry to the country. That’s pretty scary,” Rep. Vern Buchanan, the author of H.R. 4301, told the Washington Examiner. His one-sentence proposal in the House, which is co-sponsored by 24 of his colleagues in the chamber, would require DHS “to search all public records, including Internet sites and social media profiles” in determining the eligibility of applicants for U.S. visas.
While the policy might seem simple, it became the center of controversy after December’s terrorist attack in California, which was perpetrated by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the latter of whom entered the U.S. from Pakistan. Reports following the attack indicated that at least some of the content on Malik’s Facebook account should have raised red flags for the DHS officials responsible for screening visa applicants.
The same month the attack took place, a 2011 memo leaked from DHS suggested that senior department officials actively prohibited staff from looking at content on the Internet when they conducted background checks on applicants, even when it was publicly available. The Obama administration insists that was never the case. While those conflicting accounts make retrospective fact-finding difficult, it has helped Buchanan to find some consensus in Congress
“We haven’t really encountered any opposition. … We have Michael McCaul, Devin Nunes, Jeff Miller,” Buchanan said. The trio serve, respectively, as chairmen of the House Committee on Homeland Security, the House Intelligence Committee, and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. All three have signed on as co-sponsors.
Buchanan said he’s optimistic that the chamber will take action in the coming months, moving the legislation from its current position in the House Judiciary Committee to the floor of the House. “I talked to Bob Goodlatte yesterday,” Buchanan said, referring to the Virginia Republican who presides over the committee. “It’s very active. They’re going to be doing something in the near future.”
While Congress dwells on the issue, growing evidence suggests that social media is becoming a critical data point for security officials to use in the screening process. That is particularly true as the Islamic State turns increasingly to social media as a recruiting tool. Talking about the problem before a Senate panel in February, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the Islamic State had become one of the “most proficient” terrorist organizations using social media in order to “disseminate propaganda and solicit recruits among a broad audience.”
With the administration’s plan to accept 170,000 Middle Eastern refugees in the coming year, including 10,000 from Syria, the salience of that reality is growing. “From talking to Chairman McCaul, I can tell you they’re using social media,” Buchanan said. “People are concerned about what’s happening with ISIS and Syria and refugees.” With regard to specific timing that the proposal might come to the floor, he said, “My guess is sometime in June,” adding that it may come as part of a “bigger package.”
“I just think it’s common sense,” Buchanan said. “Companies are doing it. Everybody’s doing it but the federal government. This is something that needs to be dealt with.”