Here's Why Tashfeen Malik's Violent Social Media Posts Went Unnoticed

December 14th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

In 2014, Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson refused to end a secret policy that barred immigration officials from looking at the social media messages of all foreign citizens applying for U.S. visas, according to a former senior official quoted in an ABC News report

The news is the latest in the investigation into how Tashfeen Malik, the female gunman in the San Bernardino shooting, was cleared for entry and, later, a Green Card in the United States. A recent New York Times report detailed how dated social media postings by Malik expressing support for violent jihad went unnoticed in multiple extensive background checks.

The ABC News report sheds some light onto how and why officials spanning multiple government agencies might have overlooked Malik's alleged social media postings. "During that time period immigration officials were not allowed to use or review social media as part of the screening process," John Cohen, a former acting under-secretary of intelligence and analysis at DHS, and a current ABC consultant said.

A DHS spokesperson told ABC that pilot programs meant to clear visa applicants' social media accounts had been put in place in the fall of 2014. But those policies were not yet widespread, and Malik received her visa in May of that year.


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The revelations have led some to speculate as to whether more extensive programs might have prevented the deadly attack on December 2.

"Had they checked out Tashfeen Malik," said Sen. Charles Schumer, (D-N.Y.) over the weekend, "maybe those people in San Bernardino would be alive."

Cohen said that officials from the DHS Office of Civil Liberties and the Office of Privacy had refused requests to change the policy that prohibited officers from reviewing applicants' social media accounts, citing a concern for maintaining good public standing in the aftermath of damaging disclosures about government surveillance.

"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," Cohen said.

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The concern over social media postings and an increasingly online terror presence has sparked calls for the review of the immigration vetting processes. On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry told NBC that applicants' activity online was another burden for investigators.

"We need to look at whether there are meetings and whether we should be and how we can do it," Kerry said. "But clearly the social media has placed a whole new burden and a whole new set of questions."

Head to ABC to read the full report.