A secret US policy reportedly prevents officials from looking at the social media of visa applicants

The couple who killed more than a dozen people at a community center in San Bernardino, California, might have flown under the radar with the help of a “secret” US policy that bars immigration officials from scrutinizing the social-media profiles of foreigners seeking visas, ABC News reports.

US officials were reportedly worried about potential backlash if the government were to disclose that it looked at social media to screen visa applicants, John Cohen, a former acting under-secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, told ABC.

A former senior counterterrorism official told the network that US officials “felt looking at public postings” of foreign US visa applicants “was an invasion of their privacy.”

Cohen cited leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed extensive surveillance by the agency, as contributing to fears that reviewing the social media accounts of visa applicants could hurt the country’s standing with civil rights groups and European allies.

“It was primarily a question of optics,” he told ABC. “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.”

Tashfeen Malik, a native of Pakistan, moved to California last year with Syed Rizwan Farook, a US citizen who is thought to have met Malik on a 2013 trip to Saudi Arabia. Malik was on a K-1 visa, which allowed her to move to the US to marry Farook, according to The New York Times. She reportedly passed three US background checks as she immigrated from Pakistan.

The Times reported that on social media platforms, Malik commented openly that she supported violent jihad and wanted to be a part of it. The FBI said these extremist social media posts were “extensive,” according to ABC.

ABC and The Times didn’t note which social media platforms Malik was thought have posted on. But shortly after the attack earlier this month at the Inland Regional Center, investigators found Malik had pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Facebook as the attack was unfolding.

Investigators believe the attack was likely inspired by ISIS (also known as ISIL and the Islamic State), but not ordered by or coordinated directly with the terrorist group.

Officials have acknowledged, however, that Malik posted these social-media messages under a pseudonym. So it’s possible that even if the US had looked into her online presence, they wouldn’t have found evidence of “radicalization.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security told ABC that the US has begun three pilot programs to include social media in their reviews of visa applicants.

President Barack Obama has ordered a review of the K-1 visa program, which will look at whether immigration officials could conduct more extensive background checks without significantly slowing down the process, according to The Times. The US is also reviewing about 90,000 K-1 visas that were issued in the past two years.

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