The Department of Homeland Security is expanding its social media presence in an effort to protect the country, reacting to growing concern about terrorists being radicalized online, Secretary Jeh Johnson said Thursday.
In his annual State of Homeland Security address, Johnson said that in response to a recent recommendation from a social media task force within DHS, he has “determined that we must expand the use of social media even further, consistent with law. ”
He declined to be specific but said the department is now monitoring the social media use of people who apply for various immigration benefits, along with those seeking asylum under the Obama administration’s controversial program to accept refugees from Syria.
[interstitial_link url="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/federal-eye/wp/2015/11/17/senior-obama-officials-have-warned-of-challenges-in-screening-refugees-from-syria/"]Senior Obama officials have warned of challenges in screening refugees from Syria[/interstitial_link]
“We have moved from a world of terrorist-directed attacks to a world that includes the threat of terrorist-inspired attacks — in which the terrorist may have never come face to face with a single member of a terrorist organization, lives among us in the homeland, and self-radicalizes, inspired by something on the Internet,” Johnson said before an audience of more than 100 at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, adding: “So what are we doing about this?”
“We are expanding the department’s use of social media for various purposes,” he said, citing that along with other steps such as tightened security around federal buildings and increasing training for state and local law enforcement and emergency management officials.
DHS officials declined to elaborate on Johnson’s remarks but said the department uses social media screening to better assess any risks posed by travelers and immigrants, as well as cargo, entering the United States. In 2014, they said, DHS began four pilot programs to consult the social media usage of applicants for certain immigration benefits.
Federal investigators and experts have grown increasingly worried about online radicalization, fueled in part by the recent terrorist attack by a married couple who killed 14 people at a holiday office party in San Bernardino, Calif. The assailants, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, had exchanged private messages discussing their commitment to jihad and martyrdom, law enforcement officials have said, while Malik posted a note on Facebook after the shootings pledging her allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State terrorist group.
A Senate committee approved a bipartisan bill Wednesday that would require the Obama administration to prepare a comprehensive strategy to combat terrorists’ use of social media. A similar bill unanimously passed the House in December.
[interstitial_link url="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/federal-eye/wp/2016/02/10/as-concern-grows-over-terrorists-on-social-media-senate-bill-calls-for-national-strategy/"]As concern grows over terrorists on social media, Senate bill calls for national strategy[/interstitial_link]
Some Republicans accuse the administration of not having such a strategy, an allegation that White House officials deny. And on the 2016 presidential campaign trail, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) singled out DHS in a December debate, criticizing the agency for insufficient monitoring of Malik’s social media activity out of what he labeled “political correctness.”
Current and former DHS officials have strongly denied those allegations.
Elsewhere in his speech, Johnson used his typically somber and serious tone to list a variety of DHS accomplishments, ranging from management reforms of the department’s notoriously inefficient business practices to efforts to improve persistently low morale. But he got his biggest response with a joke. Bringing up the long-delayed effort to construct a massive new DHS headquarters on the grounds of St. Elizabeths — a onetime psychiatric hospital in Southeast Washington — Johnson noted that the project is finally moving ahead.
Then he deadpanned: “I will never get to work there, but perhaps they will name a courtyard or conference room after me.”
The audience erupted in laughter.