WASHINGTON (Feb. 10, 2016)—The Department of Homeland Security aims to increase the use of social media significantly in the vetting process of refugees and visa applicants.
However, such expanded surveillance is hampered by a shortage of qualified translators and a need for better technology, government officials told the House Homeland Security Committee last week.
In last week's hearing, the committee discussed how to strengthen the screening process for individuals seeking to enter the United States as a refugee or visa applicant. The committee's concern is that terrorists are attempting to utilize these legal routes to enter the country and recent cases show that the screening has flaws, according to Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
"The president believes terrorist groups like ISIS are on the run. But the truth is that they are on the march and gaining ground across the world.," McCaul said. "Make no mistake: they want to send their foot soldiers to our shores."
One of the terrorists responsible for the Dec. 2 attack in San Bernardino, Calif., entered the U.S. on a fiance visa. Tashfeen Malik was already radicalized before she arrived. FBI officials said that the couple had exchanged private messages about jihad and martyrdom on social media before the attack.
McCaul expressed his concern over how Malik's social media activity had not been reviewed prior to her entry into the country.
"We seem to have an antiquated system that we want to bring now to the 21st Century when it comes to something so vitally important as the nation's security," McCaul said.
Since the attacks in San Bernardino and subsequent arrests of two refugees in Houston and Sacramento, Calif., with ties to terrorist organizations, homeland security officials have instituted three pilot programs that look at the use of social media in screening processes.
Leon Rodriguez, director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services in the homeland security agency, testified at the hearing about his department's efforts to screen the 10,000 Syrian refugees that the Obama administration aims to bring to the United States.
"At this point, with respect to the Syrian refugees stream, we are reviewing social media in those cases where there are existing flags of concern," Rodriguez said. "We are building as quickly as we can to build to a point where we would be in fact be screening the entire body of Syrian refugee applicants."
Committee members voiced their uneasiness that homeland security officials might not be fully equipped to deal with the potential large influx of refugees and asked the witnesses about their plans to improve the quality of the vetting process.
Ranking Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, of Mississippi, asked Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis Francis X. Taylor if his department had identified the amount of personnel needed to carry out the increase in social media checks.
Taylor stated that as the social media program expands, initially the department might not have the appropriate amount of staff and that outside contracting might be needed, especially for linguists.
"All social media is not in English, so we need language skills and those sorts of things that are more readily available initially in the private sector," said Taylor. "But long-term I think we will build a capability that mirrors our department's responsibility to review this type of data and to do so with government employees that are trained and able to do."
Rodriguez said that currently the focus is to cover the social media activity of the 10,000 potential Syrian refugees that the Obama administration aims to admit into the country.
"Right now we are conducting manual vetting," Rodriguez said. "In other words, (comma added) we are literally just going into Facebook and Google and other sources to identify the social media information. That is very slow going."
He said that the department is looking for technological solutions that will permit it to look at the information more broadly and faster.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., questioned the need to allow any Syrian refugees in the United States at all. He stated that once the displaced individuals leave Syria they are no longer in any danger and that a move to the United States is purely for economic reasons.
"Tell me why we are focused on this instead of removing President Bashar al-Assad from power so at least people can go back home?" Rogers asked Rodriguez. "Why are we not working on helping the refugees stay in their neighborhood, in encampments, or in cities than bringing them to our country where we know ISIL intends to use them to kill us?"
Rodriguez responded that allowing refugees to seek safety and opportunity in the United States is not just a "purely a moral and humanitarian undertaking."
"It has a critical strategic national security and foreign policy role," said Rodriguez. "If we are not seen as offering opportunity to the very victims of ISIL and al-Nusra, then we will have given away a vital part of the battlefield."
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, criticized the anti-immigration stance of some of her colleagues, reminding the panel about the values that this nation was founded on.
"We are the front lines of security of this nation and it is our job to counter the negative, the angry, …the wrong-headedness of public officials who want to condemn the very entity of which this country has been based: a land of immigration…and a land of laws," said Lee. "You are the holder of this responsibility along with the duty of protecting this nation."