Big Shift In U.S. Visa Application Security

A Department of Homeland Security source told The Wall Street Journal Monday that U.S. visa officials will scan applicants' social media accounts before allowing them to enter the country, in an attempt to increase security following the deadly terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California which left 14 people dead. The news comes on the heels of increased pressure from Washington to update protections surrounding the visa process and international travel. The source indicated that they did not know how quickly the changes would be implemented.

Currently, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials claim that they are only required to review applicants' social media accounts on an "intermittent" basis. The source explained that the department had been taking new measures into consideration, but that details were scarce for the moment.

As The Journal pointed out, investigators looking into the San Bernardino case (in which husband and wife Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik carried out a shooting rampage at a holiday party on December 2) have begun taking a hard look at the perpetrators' Facebook and Twitter accounts, hoping to find more evidence of radicalism. According to law enforcement sources who spoke to CBS News Monday, Malik, who married Farook and moved to the United States in late 2014, had made radical posts on her Facebook page as far back as 2012.

"If you're going to start doing a deeper dive into somebody and looking at their social media postings or other things, you really want to focus your effort on the high-risk traveler, the person that you're really worried about being a threat to the United States," James Carafano, national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation's Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy told the news outlet. "... This is a case where, in retrospect, we know that this is a person that had lots of red lights and red flags. [Why] they didn't stand out as a high risk traveler [is a] really, really good question."

President Obama has also previously expressed concern over vulnerabilities in the visa application system, stating in a televised Oval Office address on December 6,

We should put in place stronger screening for those who come to America without a visa so that we can take a hard look at whether they’ve traveled to war zones. We’re working with members of both parties in Congress to do exactly that.

On Monday, former DHS acting under-secretary John Cohen claimed in an interview with ABC News that former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson had quashed attempts to end a secret U.S. policy which barred immigration officials from reviewing social media accounts of foreign citizens back in 2014, because he feared "bad public relations" backlash.

"During that time period immigration officials were not allowed to use or review social media as part of the screening process," Cohen alleged. "[But] immigration, security, [and] 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."