Further Vetting The Vetting

In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings, officials are looking at whether they may have missed clues that could have predicted the murderous death spree of Syed Rizwa Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik.  And it appears that some blazing red flags were, in fact, not seen, and that the immigrant screening process employed by the United States is not, in fact, as foolproof as some advocates have represented.

The biggest missed clues were social media posts.  As the New York Times recently reported, Tashfeen Malik had talked openly on social media posts about her support for violent jihad and her interest in being part of it.  However, the agencies charged with deciding whether she should be permitted to enter the United States never saw those posts because “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-l-and-syed-farook-are-pictured-passing-through-chicagos-ohare-international-airport-in-this-july-27-2014-handout-photo-obtained-by-reuters-december-8-2015-reutersus-customs-and-border-pStrange, isn’t it, that in our modern, internet-obsessed age, where many people share their innermost thoughts and views on-line, that social media posts of an applicant for entry to the U.S. aren’t reviewed as a matter of course to search for violent, pro-terrorist, or anti-American sentiments?  Wouldn’t you think that unprompted social media posts are much more likely to yield insights into a would-be immigrant’s true feelings than the answers given at a stilted, formal interview with a consular official?  And it’s not as if the jihadists are shy about sharing their views on social media — after all, ISIS and other Islamic terror groups actively use the internet as a recruiting mechanism and are happy to post videos of beheadings and other bloody activities as part of their recruitment campaigns.

What’s most troubling about the New York Times article linked above is the “debate” within the government about whether it is “even appropriate” to look at social media in the visa application process.  The concluding paragraph of the Times article, apparently seeking to explain the reluctance to review social media, states:  “Social media comments, by themselves, however, are not always definitive evidence. In Pakistan — as in the United States — there is no shortage of crass and inflammatory language. And it is often difficult to distinguish Islamist sentiments and those driven by political hostility toward the United States.”

Such justifications make no sense to me.  Sure, social media posts endorsing violence might not be “definitive evidence” (whatever that means) that the writer will become a mass-murdering terrorist, but don’t we want to even check on whether someone seeking entry to our country has voiced such sentiments, and if so build that undoubtedly relevant information into our decision-making process — and maybe ask a question or two about such statements in that stilted interview?   Why take a head-in-the-sand approach to available information.

And why the curious concern about whether it is “appropriate” to look at social media postings?  After all, social media posts are public statements, available to the world.  Companies routinely review social media postings as part of the job application process, and parents counsel their children to consider how that Facebook picture of their embarrassing behavior at a boozy party might be perceived by a prospective employer.  Yet the delicate sensibilities within our government are worried that it might not be “appropriate” to look at whether the likes of Tashfeen Malik have expressed violent, anti-American views before they decide to let them enter the country?

It’s bad enough that Farook and Malik were motivated to gun down innocents in San Bernardino in furtherance of their own, twisted beliefs.  It would be inexcusable if the government did not learn from the process by which Malik gained entry and use those lessons to improve our immigration protocols and enhance the information-gathering process.  Establishing a mechanism for reviewing public social media posts of visa applicants would be a good place to start.

Vetting The Vetting

We’ve heard a lot about “vetting” Syrian refugees seeking entry into the United States over the last few weeks.  Many people portray the process as so thorough and onerous that fears that terrorists might slip through the cracks in the company of legitimate refugees are implausible.

9394208_gThe history of the San Bernardino shooters, however, should at least give some pause to those who confidently accept that our existing procedures can effectively screen out potential terrorists.  The female alleged shooter, Tashfeen Malik, who had lived in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, came to the United States on a “fiance Visa” after she and her husband to be, alleged fellow shooter Syed Farook, declared their intention to marry.  She had to meet with consular officials, fill out forms, give her fingerprints, and have her information run through databases at the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.  After Malik was in the United States and she and Farook were married, she had to undergo additional background checks before she obtained her green card.

These procedures are different from those that would apply to refugees, which apparently are more “strict.”  Nevertheless, Malik made it through a significant vetting process — and ABC News has reported that the Pakistan address that she listed in her visa application doesn’t, in fact, exist.  If you were an employer deciding whether to hire a new employee and the candidate’s resume or application included false information, that would raise a red flag.  Why didn’t the vetting process in Malik’s case catch the fake address?   That apparent lapse doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence about the bullet-proof nature of our vetting process.

It’s always easy to question apparent security failures, after the fact — just look at the weird, red-flag-filled story of Lee Harvey Oswald in the years before the JFK assassination.  In this case, however, scrutinizing the procedures used for Tashfeen Malik is not cheap second-guessing, but an entirely rational response.  We know, from the unfortunate actions in San Bernardino and from the declarations of ISIS and other terrorist organizations, that radicalized people from the Middle East want to do us harm.  The procedures we are using to screen people who want to come to this country obviously have to take account of that fact — and if we aren’t sure that those procedures work, we need to do something about it.