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U.S. Considers More Scrutiny of Visa-Seekers' Social Media Accounts

After the San Bernardino attack, investigators found out that Tashfeen Malik had discussed violent jihad on social media prior to her visa approval.

The U.S. government may impose tighter scrutiny of visa-seekers' social media accounts following revelations that one of the San Bernardino attackers discussed violence before she was allowed into the country.

"It's safe to assume that in the wake of this tragic incident that we're all going to be taking a hard look at the social media aspect of this," State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday.

American consular officers are already permitted to review applicants' social media activity if they think it to be "valuable or necessary." The decision is made on a case-by-case basis and is not mandatory, Kirby said.

A stricter regulation could make such scrutiny a regular step in the approval process. But Kirby pointed out that people can also disguise their identities online or turn on privacy settings that would prevent an officer from seeing much.

The Department of Homeland Security, the other federal agency that reviews visa requests, is also working to add social media to the background checks, officials said.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced Monday that his panel was working on legislation to reform the visa screening process, including guarantees that "open source information" such as social media would be reviewed as part of standard background checks.

The new protocols are being considered following the Dec. 2 attack in San Bernardino, California, in which a radicalized Muslim couple gunned down 14 people at a holiday office party. The wife, Tashfeen Malik, was allowed in the country in 2014 on a type of visa for people who plan to marry to American citizens.

Malik, a Pakistani national, passed two background checks before she was admitted to the United States in July 2014, and a third last summer, when she was given a green card. But only after the attack did investigators find that she had discussed violent jihad on social media prior to her visa approval, officials say.

Investigators have also found that both Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, an American citizen, had been radicalized for years but eluded the authorities' attention.

Two U.S. officials said that Malik's pre-visa jihadist messages were missed because she'd sent them privately to her sister's Facebook page and were not posted publicly.

Investigators are still trying to figure out the full picture of Malik and Farook's radicalization and planning for the attack.

"Obviously things went wrong. It's difficult to say exactly what and how," Kirby said. "But for an individual to be able to come into this country, one who the FBI has maintained had terrorist tendencies or affiliations or sympathies at least for a couple of years and then to propagate an attack like that on our own soil, obviously, I think it's safe to say there's going to be lessons learned here."