By Stephen Dinan - The Washington Times - Sunday, January 17, 2016

Homeland Security is now trying to screen the social media accounts of Iraqi and Syrian refugee applicants, an agency chief said, as evidence emerges that immigration officers missed potential clues that foreign fighters left in cyberspace about their intentions.

Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that screens refugees, told C-SPAN in an interview aired Sunday that they now have permission to scour Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites looking for online trails that could expose a security risk from among the tens of thousands of applicants.

But he said it's unlikely they will be able to check social media accounts of all 8 million immigration applicants the agency receives a year, so they'll have to target only specific programs and countries where they see a risk.

"We're ramping up basically toward using social media vetting across that entire area of activity for us," Mr. Rodriguez told the "Newsmakers" program. "There are reasons to be thinking about how we use those tools at least in those cases where there's a flag of concern."

Last month his agency suffered a black eye when it was reported that the terrorist couple whose attack in San Bernardino, California, left 14 people dead had made postings online praising the Islamic State.

The posts turned out to be private messages, so it's unlikely USCIS could have spotted them ahead of time, but the agency came under fire nonetheless for failing to make such screenings a regular part of its operations.

ABC News reported last year that it had a secret policy prohibiting use of social media. Mr. Rodriguez flatly denied that, telling C-SPAN there was no ban.

But while that may be true, the agency did reject a proposal to begin using social media, The Washington Times reported.

The then-head of the USCIS fraud unit drew up a plan to allow social media checks for limited purposes and presented it in 2011, The Times reported. He retired assuming the plan had been implemented, but instead it had been shelved.

The agency did begin several small pilot programs last year, and Mr. Rodriguez says he now has the authority to expand those programs.

Screening of immigrants and visitors has come under the spotlight as the terrorist threat has spiked in the last few years. High-profile events such as last month's San Bernardino attacks have been coupled with arrests of jihadis seeking to travel to the Middle East to train or fight with various terrorist groups.

On Saturday the Justice Department announced charges against two men from Woodbridge, Virginia, accusing them of conspiring to help one of them reach Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State.

Joseph Hassan Farrokh, 28, was arrested as he prepared to begin a journey he hoped would take him to Jordan, where he expected to be able to sneak across the border into Syria and join up with the Islamic State. Mahmoud Amin Mohamed Elhassan, 25, is accused of helping him, then lying about it to authorities.

Earlier this month federal prosecutors lodged charges against two refugees in separate cases in Texas and California. Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan, 25, a Palestinian born in Iraq, has been charged with lying to USCIS about his activities when he applied for citizenship in the U.S. Government informants said he was trying to build bombs in his Texas home, with plans to attack two shopping malls on behalf of the Islamic State.

In the other case, investigators said Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab, 23, traveled to Syria and fought with Ansar al-Islam against the Syrian regime, according to charges brought in federal court in California. He then lied about the travel to Syria to USCIS officers, prosecutors say.

Mr. Al-Jayab's case is particularly worrying since he was admitted in 2012 as a refugee from Syria — using the same program that President Obama has called for expanding to accept 10,000 more Syrian refugees this year.

Those plans have run into trouble in Congress, where the House voted overwhelmingly last year to require Mr. Obama’s chiefs of intelligence, Homeland Security and the FBI to certify every refugee as low-risk before they could be admitted.

The Senate is slated to vote on that legislation on Wednesday.

Mr. Al-Jayab communicated with other foreign fighters via social media, according to the criminal complaint against him. But authorities had to acquire those communications via warrant. It’s unclear whether he had signaled his radicalization publicly in a way that would have been visible to USCIS officers.