Media Food Chain: Fox Falsely Claims DHS Bars Screening Of Visa Applicants' Social Media, Based On Unsourced Report

How An Unsourced NY Times Story Pervaded Right-Wing Media And The GOP Debate

Right-wing media trumpeted a front-page New York Times piece that used unnamed sources to claim that one of the San Bernardino attackers “talked openly on social media” about violent jihad. These claims made their way into the December 15 CNN Republican debate, where candidates claimed that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was prohibited from reviewing the social media of potential visa applicants out of concern for “political correctness.”  But the FBI and DHS explained that they are not prohibited from reviewing social media, and FBI Director James Comey found no evidence that the San Bernardino terrorists made any public  “pro-Jihad” posts on social media.

NY Times Reported That San Bernardino Attacker “Talked Openly On Social Media” About Violent Jihad, Citing Anonymous Sources

New York Times Reported That American Law Enforcement Officials Found Pro-Jihad Messages On San Bernardino Attacker's Social Media. Citing anonymous sources, a front-page Sunday story in The New York Times claimed that Tashfeen Malik, an immigrant who passed three background checks and one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attack, “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.” The Times continued that “immigration officials do not routinely review social media as part of their background checks, and there is a debate inside the Department of Homeland Security over whether it is even appropriate to do so” :

Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband carried out the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., passed three background checks by American immigration officials as she moved to the United States from Pakistan. None uncovered what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide -- that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.

She said she supported it. And she said she wanted to be a part of it.

American law enforcement officials said they recently discovered those old -- and previously unreported -- postings as they pieced together the lives of Ms. Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, trying to understand how they pulled off the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

Had the authorities found the posts years ago, they might have kept her out of the country. But immigration officials do not routinely review social media as part of their background checks, and there is a debate inside the Department of Homeland Security over whether it is even appropriate to do so.

The discovery of the old social media posts has exposed a significant -- and perhaps inevitable -- shortcoming in how foreigners are screened when they enter the United States, particularly as people everywhere disclose more about themselves online. Tens of millions of people are cleared each year to come to this country to work, visit or live. It is impossible to conduct an exhaustive investigation and scour the social media accounts of each of them, law enforcement officials say. [The New York Times, 12/12/15]

Right-Wing Media Trumpeted Story About Malik's Social Media Posts, Claiming DHS Ignores Social Media In Visa Reviews

Fox's Peter Johnson Jr.: DHS “Will Ban Facebook Reviews ... Because They Have A Civil Liberties Office.” On the December 17 edition of Fox & Friends, Fox News legal analyst Peter Johnson Jr. accused the Department of Homeland Security of having “a civil liberties office” that caused them to ban reviews of Facebook posts:

PETER JOHNSON JR (LEGAL ANALYST): So what's going on with these schools across the country and these threats? What are we hearing from DHS on that? We know that they will ban Facebook reviews of people trying to enter the United States because they have a civil liberties office in the Department of Homeland Security. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 12/17/15]

Sean Hannity: DHS's Jeh Johnson “Doesn't Want To Look At [Would-Be Terrorists'] Publicly Posted Social Media.” On the December 15 edition of Fox News' Hannity, host Sean Hannity accused DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson of “protect[ing] the privacy of would-be terrorists” and not wanting “to look at their publicly posted social media.” Fox contributor Jonah Goldberg agreed that “they just don't have any desire to monitor ... would-be jihadists' social media” :

SEAN HANNITY (HOST): I keep bringing this up because it takes my breath away. That our Department of Homeland Security chief doesn't want to impose his will or wants to protect the privacy of would-be terrorists, people that have no constitutional rights, and he doesn't want to look at their publicly posted social media.

[...]

HANNITY: And by the way, maybe if we would have looked at Tashfeen Malik's Facebook page, we wouldn't need to be talking about gun control. People may be alive today. That's the serious side of this.

JONAH GOLDBERG: But they like to monitor Americans' social media, but they just don't have any desire to monitor, you know, would-be jihadists' social media. It's a very strange thing. [Fox News, Hannity, 12/15/15]

Fox's Martha MacCallum: DHS Agents Didn't “Pic[k] Up On” Malik's Public Posts Because “Agents Are Told That They Should Not Be Screening Social Media.” On the December 15 edition of America's Newsroom, host Martha MacCallum claimed that Department of Homeland Security “agents are told that they should not be screening the social media of people who are applying for visas to this country because it could be bad for PR, or it could provoke a civil rights backlash.” MacCallum also accused Johnson or the White House of “shut[ing] them down” when people within the Department of Homeland Security wanted to screen social media:

MARTHA MACCALLUM (HOST): We got disturbing revelations that Homeland Security may have missed some serious red flags on one of the San Bernardino shooters. Tashfeen Malik reportedly posted multiple pro-jihadi statements online on Facebook and elsewhere years before she applied to have a visa to enter the United States. But those messages were never picked up on, in part because agents are told that they should not be screening the social media of people who are applying for visas to this country because it could be bad for PR, or it could provoke a civil rights backlash. Wrap your head around that one. Now the Department of Homeland Security is reportedly saying that they're going to make some changes to this program.

[...]

MACCALLUM: I mean it sounds like though, you know, it's not that we don't have the ability, as you say, and it sounds like people within the Department of Homeland Security wanted to do just that. But that the White House or Jeh Johnson shut them down. [Fox News, America's Newsroom, 12/15/15]

Fox's Steve Doocy: All The DHS “Would Have Needed Was A Google To Figure Out She Was A Jihadi.” On the December 15 edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy claimed that while “the Department of Homeland Security may monitor Americans' social media accounts ... they're not looking” at visa applicants' social media. Doocy said the policy existed because the DHS “didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings” :

STEVE DOOCY (CO-HOST): [Tashfeen Malik] wound up getting a green card. As it turns out, she went through the vetting process, she went through the screening process three different times, and yet they did not catch the fact that she had posted all sorts of crazy jihad stuff on her Facebook page. Why? Well, according to The Daily Caller, they found out that apparently the Department of Homeland Security may monitor Americans' social media accounts to make sure nobody is bad-mouthing the Department of Homeland Security. So you and I, they might be looking at. But when it comes to immigrants on visa applicants, they're not looking, because they don't want to be accused of trampling on immigrant rights. So all they would have needed was a Google to figure out that she was a jihadi. And they didn't do it because they, the Department of Homeland Security, didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings. Well I got news for you, Department of Homeland Security, 14 people are dead out in the West Coast because nobody looked into her social media. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 12/15/15]

Megyn Kelly: “The Obama Administration Has Been Deliberately Ignoring Evidence Related To” Visa Applicant Social Media “Out Of A Desire To Be Politically Correct.” On the December 14 edition of The Kelly File, host Megyn Kelly accused the Obama administration of “deliberately ignoring evidence” of extremism on visa applicants' social media profiles “out of a desire to be politically correct.” Kelly then accused the DHS of “reportedly worr[ying] about 'the optics' of doing so, fearing ... that it might anger some civil rights groups and create bad PR” :

MEGYN KELLY (HOST): Breaking tonight. New concerns that the American people are being endangered, thanks to an administration hell bent on not offending anyone. Welcome to The Kelly File everyone, I'm Megyn Kelly. Tonight we've learned that the Obama administration has been deliberately ignoring evidence related to whether those seeking entry into this country mean to do Americans harm out of a desire to be politically correct. As a result, immigrants, like the female terrorist in San Bernardino, whose online postings made very clear she was an Islamic extremist, have been getting a free pass into the U.S. -- despite social media postings that make very clear they are potential killers. Today, President Obama went to the Pentagon to discuss efforts to defeat ISIS. Afterwards, he spoke but offered few, if any, new details. One thing he notably did not discuss was the news reports that his administration has been deliberately ignoring the social media accounts of foreigners who apply for an entry visa into the United States. Deliberately, I say. Something American employers do with job applicants on a regular basis. But those charged with protecting us apparently decided this is not a good idea. The Homeland Security Department was reportedly worried about “the optics” of doing so, fearing it might look bad to check up on a foreigner's public profile, that it might anger some civil rights groups and create bad PR. This raises serious questions, considering that the female terrorist, who murdered 14 Americans this month, made her own radical views very clear online. In fairness to the administration, we have learned that she posted those under a pseudonym and she kept her pages private. They were not available for public consumption. But how many others have slipped through the tracks, whose online behavior would have kept them out of this country if only we had bothered to look? [Fox News, The Kelly File, 12/14/15]

Fox's Gretchen Carlson: “We're Not Going To Look Into Their Social Media Accounts? This Is PC At Its Best.” On the December 15 edition of The Real Story, host Gretchen Carlson said she found “it incredibly difficult to believe that we are not looking at the social media accounts” of visa applicants, calling the policy “PC at its best” :

GRETCHEN CARLSON (HOST): What is the real story about this? I mean, I find it absolutely, incredibly difficult to believe that we are not looking at the social media accounts of people coming into these countries, coming into our country, wanting to live here. That is how ISIS communicates.

[...]

CARLSON: Well I think it came as quite a shock yesterday when this was revealed. Instead, Senator, these are the questions that are asked, if in fact an interview is actually done with those people. Things like this: Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States? Have you ever/do you intend to provide money, support to any terrorist groups. Do you have any skills or training in explosives, nuclear, or chemical experience? Have you ever been a member or have been involved with a paramilitary unit? Now, come on, Senator, they're going to answer yes to those questions? And yet we're not going to look into their social media accounts? This is PC at its best, is it not? [Fox News, The Real Story, 12/15/15]

During GOP Debate, Candidates Repeated The Claim That DHS Ignores Social Media In Reviewing Visa Applications

CNN: Cruz, Fiorina, And Huckabee Claimed In GOP Debate That Social Media Checks Were “Prohibited Or Willfully Ignored In Visa Cases.” During the December 15 CNN Republican presidential debate, candidates Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, and Mike Huckabee claimed that “social media checks were prohibited or willfully ignored in visa cases” by the Department of Homeland Security. From the December 16 CNN Politics fact check:

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas: “It's not a lack of competence that is preventing the Obama administration from stopping these attacks. It is political correctness. We didn't monitor the Facebook posting of the female San Bernardino terrorist because the Obama DHS thought it would be inappropriate. She made a public call to jihad and they didn't target it.”

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina: “The bureaucratic processes that have been in place since 9/11 are inadequate, as well. What do we now know? That DHS vets people by going into databases of known or suspected terrorists. And yet, we also know that ISIS is recruiting who are not in those databases. So of course, we're going to miss them. And then we now learn that DHS says, ” No, we can't check their social media." For heaven's sake, every parent in America is checking social media and every employer is as well. The government can't do it? The bureaucratic procedures are so far behind."

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee: “I just want to make sure that everything we use is going to be effective. We're spending billions of dollars, let's make sure it's effective. Let's use every tool, but let's also check out the Facebook posts, let's look at Twitter accounts. My gosh, we were told we couldn't do it because it might invade somebody's privacy. This lady who came over here and shot up San Bernardino was posting things on Facebook, yet, we were restricted from looking.” [CNN.com, 12/16/15]

Debate Fact Checks Rated GOP Candidates' Claims About DHS' Policy On Reviewing Visa Applicants' Social Media As “False”

CNN: “There Is No State Department Policy Prohibiting Social Media Checks” And DHS “Also Allows Social Media Checks.” A CNN fact check debunked Cruz, Fiorina, and Huckabee's claims that DHS is restricted from checking social media during the visa vetting process. CNN wrote that “there is no State Department policy prohibiting social media checks by consular officers,” who are “free to check any and all publicly available information on an applicant, including their social media postings.” CNN further noted that DHS “also allows social media checks.” CNN added that “in recent months the U.S. has begun to take steps to review social media of visa applicants from certain countries” :

There is no State Department policy prohibiting social media checks by consular officers, who interview prospective visa recipients and make the final call on whether they qualify for a visa, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday.

These consular officers are free to check any and all publicly available information on an applicant, including their social media postings.

That said, they aren't required to do so with every applicant.

The Department of Homeland Security -- which runs background checks on foreign applicants as part of the interagency process -- also allows social media checks, but again, they aren't required. In fact, in recent months the U.S. has begun to take steps to review social media of visa applicants from certain countries.

The value of these social media searches is limited, since terrorist sympathizers can conceal their identities online or use privacy settings to hide their posts.

In fact, San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik obscured her identity when making pro-jihad comments social media sites and used enhanced security settings, U.S. law enforcement officials told CNN this week.

Some of Malik's postings were only visible to a small group of friends, which runs in direct contrast to Cruz's suggestion that Malik made the statements publicly.

Verdict: False [CNN, 12/16/15]

AP: DHS “Has Authority To Look At Social Media ... When Evaluating Visa Applications” But San Bernardino Shooter's “Posts Weren't Public.” The Associated Press debunked Ted Cruz's claim that "[w]e didn't monitor the Facebook page of the San Bernardino terrorist because DHS thought it would be inappropriate," clarifying that “The Department of Homeland Security has authority to look at social media such as Facebook when evaluating visa applications, and the agency says it does so in some cases.” AP pointed out that “scrutinizing social media accounts of every visa applicant would dramatically slow the approval process” and that “it's also unclear whether looking at” the San Bernardino terrorists Facebook pages “would have prevented the attacks” :

THE FACTS: The Department of Homeland Security has authority to look at social media such as Facebook when evaluating visa applications, and the agency says it does so in some cases. But some experts say that scrutinizing social media accounts of every visa applicant would dramatically slow the approval process, including for tourist visas.

It's also unclear whether looking at the Facebook pages of the shooters in the California attacks would have prevented the attacks.

The male attacker, Syed Farook, was a U.S. citizen, born in Illinois, and never needed a visa. His wife, attacker Tashfeen Malik, 29, did enter the country on a fiancee visa and had used social media to speak of martyrdom and jihad. But Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., has said such posts weren't public. After the attacks, Facebook did find a profile under an alias linked to Malik with a post pledging her allegiance to the Islamic State. [Associated Press, 12/16/15]

FBI Contradicts NY Times Report That San Bernardino Attacker “Talked Openly On Social Media About Her Views On Violent Jihad”

Wash. Post: NY Times Reviewing Reporting On Social Media Of San Bernardino Shooters After FBI Characterized The Correspondence As “Direct, Private Messages. The New York Times is conducting a review “addressing a discrepancy between the paper's reporting” that San Bernardino attacker Tashfeen Malik “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad” and later statements made by FBI Director James B. Comey. In a session with reporters, Comey “characterized the correspondence as 'direct, private messages'” :

The review is addressing a discrepancy between the paper's reporting and statements made yesterday by FBI Director James B. Comey. The New York Times reported in a front-page Sunday piece that Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband Syed Rizwan Farook committed the slayings, “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.” In a session with reporters yesterday, Comey announced: “So far, in this investigation we have found no evidence of posting on social media by either of them at that period in time and thereafter reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom. I've seen some reporting on that, and that's a garble.” He characterized the correspondence as “direct, private messages.”

[...]

Consider this statement in the New York Times article, in light of Comey's contentions about private exchanges: “In an era when technology has given intelligence agencies seemingly limitless ability to collect information on people, it may seem surprising that a Facebook or Twitter post could go unnoticed in a background screening.”

Not surprising, of course, if the post was sent via private channels. “You can't hit what you can't see,” says David Gomez, a former FBI senior assistant special agent-in-charge in Seattle. “You can't investigate what you didn't know about.” Scooping up such private messages -- even on social media platforms -- requires a search warrant. That's a process freighted with evidentiary hurdles and paperwork -- as opposed to the DHS social-media searches addressed in the New York Times story. “There may be some criticism about the FBI's ability to proactively penetrate some of these people but you really run into roadblocks when that person is a U.S. person and you don't have reasonable suspicion or probable cause,” said Gomez.

That the New York Times appears to have botched this story isn't a shocker. “American law enforcement officials” -- upon whom the paper relied for its scoop -- are famous for feeding contradictory and unfounded information to the media. “Social media,” too, is a confusing term, in that a great many such platforms mix public-facing messages with private correspondence capabilities. “Precision in language in these stories is very important,” said Gomez. [The Washington Post, 12/17/15]

LA Times: FBI Director Said The San Bernardino Shooters "Did Not Make Open Posts On Social Media Regarding Islamic Jihad." The Los Angeles Times reported that the San Bernardino terrorists “did not make open posts on social media regarding radical Islamic jihad or martyrdom before the Dec. 2 terror attack in San Bernardino.” The report quoted FBI Director James Comey as saying “some news reports about Farook and Malik's social media use had been a 'garble'” and that “we have found no evidence of the posting on social media by either of them ... reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom” :

Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik did not make open posts on social media regarding radical Islamic jihad or martyrdom before the Dec. 2 terror attack in San Bernardino, FBI Director James B. Comey said Wednesday, attempting to knock down criticism that U.S. officials had missed the growing radicalism of the couple and could have prevented her from moving to the U.S. last year.

[...]

In the San Bernardino case, Comey said, some news reports about Farook and Malik's social media use had been a “garble.” He emphasized the distinction between postings on social media and private messages using social media platforms.

“We can see from our investigation that in late 2013 -- before there is a physical meeting of these two people, resulting in their engagement and journey to the United States -- they are communicating online, showing signs in that communication their joint commitment to jihad and to martyrdom. Those communications are direct private messages,” he said.

"So far in this investigation we have found no evidence of the posting on social media by either of them at that period of time and thereafter reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom. I've seen some reporting on that. That's a garble. All right?

“The investigation continues, but we have not found that kind of thing. These communications are private, direct messages, not social media messages,” he added. [The Los Angeles Times, 12/16/15]

DHS Secretary Johnson Says His Department Has Consulted Social Media In Visa Reviews Since Early 2015

Huffington Post: Jeh Johnson Said “That His Department Has Been Consulting Social Media In Reviews Of Immigration Applications Since Early This Year.” The Huffington Post reported that Jeh Johnson said DHS “has been consulting social media in reviews of immigration applicants since early this year.” Johnson was quoted as calling previous social media policies “too restrictive” and that under his leadership, “we in fact began to consult social media.” Johnson concluded that “any reports or partial reports to the contrary are simply false” :

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Wednesday that his department has been consulting social media in reviews of immigration applications since early this year, hitting back at criticism that U.S. authorities are not doing enough to weed out potential security threats.

The Department of Homeland Security has been criticized over reports it did not routinely consult social media during the vetting process for visa applications.

[...]

Johnson said his department began consulting social media early this year before granting certain immigration benefits but did not specify which ones.

“We had policies in place regarding consulting social media which in my judgment, particularly in this current environment, were too restrictive,” Johnson told reporters at the unveiling of a revamped terrorism alert system.

“Under my leadership as secretary, we in fact began to consult social media in connection with conferring various immigration benefits and we will be doing more of this,” he added. “Any reports or partial reports to the contrary are simply false.”

He noted DHS consults intelligence community databases and law enforcement databases when it does vetting for “a lot” of immigration benefits but said social media is also useful.

Monitoring of social media as a way to identify potentially violent extremists was hotly debated Tuesday night by Republican presidential candidates, with some candidates arguing for increased scrutiny of social media in terrorism investigations.

While there currently is no explicit order banning visa investigators from trawling applicants' social media accounts, some agencies that process visa applications have been wary about doing so, an Obama administration official said.

Johnson denied reports there was a policy in place in 2014 that prevented agents from screening Malik before she entered the country.

“That would not be accurate,” Johnson said. He would not comment on the investigation but noted public reports that Malik made her posts under an alias. [The Huffington Post, 12/16/15]