News & Politics

Former Homeland Security Official Blows Whistle on U.S. Policy Blocking Agents From Viewing Social Media Posts of Visa Applicants

Official U.S. policy prohibits immigration officials from reviewing the social media messages of all foreign citizens applying for U.S. visas, a former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security revealed today on ABC’s Good Morning America.

Although such postings are public, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson refused to end the secret policy in early 2014 out of fear of a “civil liberties backlash” and “bad public relations,”  according to John Cohen, a former acting under-secretary at DHS for intelligence and analysis.

“During that time period immigration officials were not allowed to use or review social media as part of the screening process,” said Cohen, now a national security consultant for ABC News. “It was primarily a question of optics,” he said. “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.”

The revelation comes as members of Congress question why U.S. officials failed to review the social media posts of San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik. She received a U.S. visa in May 2014, despite what the FBI said were extensive social media messages about jihad and martyrdom.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., demanded Sunday that the U.S. immediately initiate a program that would check the social media sites of those admitted on visas. “Had they checked out Tashfeen Malik,” the senator said, “maybe those people in San Bernardino would be alive.”

Former DHS under-secretary Cohen said he and others pressed hard for just such a policy change in 2014 that would allow a review of publicly-posted social media messages as terror group followers increasingly used Twitter and Facebook to show their allegiance to a variety of jihadist groups.

Cohen said officials from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) both pressed for a change in policy.

“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,” said Cohen, who left DHS in June 2014.

Cohen said the issue reached a head at a heated 2014 meeting chaired by Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, other top deputies and representatives of 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 said in an interview broadcast on “Good Morning America” today.

Cohen said he and others were deeply disappointed that the senior leadership would not approve a review of what were publicly-posted online messages. “There is no excuse for not using every resource at our disposal to fully vet individuals before they come to the United States,” Cohen said.

A former senior counter-terrorism official, who participated in the 2014 discussion, said, “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. “The arguments being made were, and are still, in bad faith.”

Cohen’s account of Johnson’s refusal to change the policy was confirmed by one current and one former senior counter-terrorism official. It isn’t clear exactly when the self-defeating policy was adopted, but one suspects that such a lethal form of political correctness could only have come from the Obama administration.

John Cohen is the second DHS whistleblower to raise a red flag in recent days about the department’s dangerous PC policies. Last week, on Fox News’ The Kelly File, former DHS investigator Phillip Haney claimed that his work looking into global terror networks which are infiltrating radical Islamists into the U.S. was halted by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights division, because he was engaging in “problematic” activities like profiling. Haney believes if he had been able to continue, the terrorists in San Bernardino might have been thwarted. Similarly, had Jeh Johnson prioritized the safety and security of the American people ahead of Obama’s foolish public relations gesture, the terror attack might well have been avoided.

A spokesperson for the DHS, Marsha Catron, told ABC News that “the Department is ‘actively considering additional ways to incorporate the use of social media review in its various vetting programs,’ while keeping an eye on privacy concerns.” With thousands of “Syrian” “refugees” heading our way, there’s no time like the present.