BREAKING: Memo Shows Obama Admin Rejected DHS Screening of Social Media in 2011 (Video)
A previously undisclosed internal Department of Homeland Security memo from 2011 shows a proposal to vet the social media of visa applicants for criminal and national security risks was rejected by the Obama administration. The administration did not want to infringe on the civil liberties of foreign applicants.
Top officials at the Department of Homeland Security considered a specific policy to strengthen security screenings for foreign visa applicants’ social media accounts, but the proposal was ultimately rejected, according to an internal department memo obtained by MSNBC.
While the U.S. visa screening process does not include formal vetting of social media accounts, the memo proposed the Obama administration “authorize” customs officials to “access social networking sites” to vet applicants. Such vetting could help catch applicants bent on fraud, crime or “national security” risks, the memo stated.
The federal government considered that policy, according to a former senior official in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but officials rejected it in 2011.
The memo went through roughly a year of revisions with agency lawyers, privacy officers and senior staff, the official added, and was about it to be published as policy – but was then halted by senior officials.
“It’s unusual to go through the circulation process and revisions,” the official said, and then have a policy “not happen.”
“We are at war now,” the official added, “and we need all the tools we can get.”
The three-page memo, now published for the first time exclusively by MSNBC, outlines how officials could use social media to vet visa applicants abroad and inside the United States. MSNBC is publishing the internal memo, marked “law enforcement sensitive,” with redactions for selected operational details.
DHS officials did not dispute the internal memo when asked about it, but emphasized more recent efforts to vet social media accounts.
“The Department is actively considering additional ways to incorporate the use of social media review” for vetting, spokeswoman Marsha Catron told MSNBC, noting that the department began “three pilot programs” for that kind of vetting over the past year.
She said that officials must also ensure any vetting follows “current law and appropriately takes into account civil rights and civil liberties and privacy protections.”
Many in Congress are trying to change current law, arguing vetting should be more robust.
There has been especially harsh criticism from Republicans, but the issue has also cut across partisan lines since the San Bernardino attacks, with Democratic senators calling for a “more rigorous screening process” this week.
Asked about reports of a DHS decision to scuttle the 2011 proposal, several security experts said that was a mistake.
“The Internet is a treasure trove of intelligence gathering,” said former federal prosecutor Michael Wildes. “It’s shocking that this intelligence wasn’t utilized.”
Wildes, an immigration law expert, told MSNBC that if DHS did spike this proposal years ago, it reflects a “blind spot” for public safety.