DHS plans expanded social media checks on Syrian refugees

Members of Congress are looking to DHS for a more complete regime of social media background checks on Syrian refugees looking to enter the U.S.

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Not every refugee applying for entrance to the U.S. has their social media presence checked, but the long-term goal of the Department of Homeland Security is for social media vetting to happen across the board, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Director Leon Rodriguez said.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the Chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, asked Rodriguez at a hearing Feb. 3 if anyone is checking the social media of the 10,000 Syrian refugees the U.S. plans on admitting as part of an overall annual influx of 85,000 refugees.

"We are reviewing social media in those cases where there are existing flags of concern," Rodriguez said. "We are building as quickly as we can to build to a point where we would in fact be screening the entire body of Syrian refugee applicants. We are prioritizing as we bring new resources online…those areas where we detect the greatest risk."

McCaul recommended DHS move to vet the social media of all visa applicants, not just Syrians.  

However, there were tense exchanges throughout the hearing about how officials are vetting and monitoring refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. Lawmakers are concerned about individuals with ties terrorist groups such as the Islamic State gaining access to the U.S. homeland through established visa programs for workers, travelers and spouses of legal residents, or through refugee programs.

For instance, Tashfeen Malik, the female shooter in the Dec. 2015 San Bernardino attack, entered the U.S. on a fiancé visa.

"It was divulged that her social media had not been reviewed prior to coming into the United States or as part of the visa application process," McCaul said. "Something as fundamental, that really any employer before they hire someone, that I'm aware of, check."

Francis Taylor, the Homeland Security undersecretary of intelligence and analysis, said that DHS has been using social media in the vetting process since 2012, but the challenge has been using it comprehensively and effectively across the entire department. Taylor said Homeland Security formed a task force in Dec. 2015 to reach that goal. DHS has conducted four pilots using social media in connection with refugee applications. 

"We learned in the Malik case…that perhaps we didn't explore as many sources as we could have explored, although her private social media wouldn't have been available, so we've begun the process of developing a system to do that," Taylor said.

Bond was asked directly about Malik's social media. She and Bond told lawmakers that to her knowledge Malik's public Facebook page did not contain anything that would have raised red flags.

Lawmakers also wondered if the government has the resources it needs.

"Do we have enough linguists available to do the job right now?" Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.) asked.

Bond said they would be able to hire more people who could help translate social media posts, but for the most part the consular offices are trained in the language of the country where they're working and they also have local employees who can assist.

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