(That night, Ted Cruz took on the topic during the GOP presidential debate: “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.”)
GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan has introduced a House companion to McCain’s bill, and a pair of senators—Democrat Martin Heinrich and Republican Jeff Flake—have also rolled out a bill to ensure that DHS can review “open source” information, including social-media posts, of visa applicants.
To be clear, the Times story was one of several about Malik’s Internet activity and reviews of visa applications. And it came at a time of broad review of the nation’s screening process for people entering the country. So the Times story is not the only thing that spurred the legislative rush. But given that it was cited, either explicitly or implicitly, in a host of press releases surrounding the new bills, it appears clear the story was a key driver of the new legislation.
But on Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey knocked down claims of public postings by Malik, telling reporters that Malik and future husband Syed Rizwan Farook communicated online in late 2013 about their “joint commitment to jihad and to martyrdom.” But then, crucially, he added, “Those communications are direct private messages,” and he said there was “no evidence of posting on social media by either of them at that period of time and thereafter reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom.”
The key mistake in the Times story was reporting that Malik’s pro-jihad statements had been publicly available. Given the private nature of those messages, it’s unclear how the new slew of new bills this week, which deal largely with public postings, would have helped DHS better screen Malik or assess the threat she posed to national security.
Fake News, Real Bills, But a Real Problem?
But while the specific story was wrong, it has shined a light on what even administration officials say could be a real problem with the country’s counterterrorism efforts.
DHS Secretary Johnson said Wednesday that his agency has been reviewing social media in immigration applications in certain instances since early this year, acknowledging that prior policies were “too restrictive,” Reuters reports.
Buchanan told National Journal in a statement that it “doesn’t change a thing” that the Times story which helped set off the furor was inaccurate. “We should be screening the social media of foreigners regardless of whether these two terrorists used public or private Facebook accounts. ISIS uses the Internet to recruit and radicalize terrorists. They have 40,000 Twitter accounts. We need to fight fire with fire,” he said.
A McCain aide expressed a similar view. “The fact remains that the Obama administration has clearly declined to review social media when conducting background checks of foreigners seeking to enter the United States—a policy that leaves us with a dangerous gap in intelligence that could make us vulnerable to another attack,” the aide said.