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 not adopted, 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 passed on it in 2011.
"I thought it was a done deal," said the former official, who would only speak anonymously about internal security discussions.
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."