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US missed clues on attacker’s support for violent jihad

Malik made her zealotry known on social media

Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook, the couple who massacred 14 people in San Bernardino, at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook, the couple who massacred 14 people in San Bernardino, at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.U.S. Customs and Border Protection via NYT

WASHINGTON — Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband carried out the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., passed three background checks by US immigration officials as she moved to the United States from Pakistan. But none uncovered that Malik talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.

She said she supported it and wanted to be a part of it. And she made little effort to hide the fact.

US law enforcement officials said they recently discovered those old — and previously unreported — postings as they pieced together the lives of Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, trying to understand how they pulled off the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

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Had authorities found the posts years ago, they might have kept her out of the country. But immigration officials do not routinely review social media as part of their background checks, and there is a debate inside the Department of Homeland Security over whether it is even appropriate to do so.

The discovery of the old social media posts has exposed a significant — and perhaps inevitable — shortcoming in how foreigners are screened when they enter the United States, particularly as people everywhere disclose more about themselves online.

Tens of millions of people are cleared each year to come to this country to work, visit, or live. It is impossible to conduct an exhaustive investigation and scour the social media accounts of each of them, law enforcement officials say.

On Saturday in Georgia, funeral services were held for Shannon Johnson, a 45-year-old health inspector from Los Angeles, 10 days after he died during the San Bernardino rampage. Inside Calvary Baptist Church in the rural city of Jesup, where Johnson was born, a US representative gave his family a folded US flag while praising him as ‘‘an American hero.’’

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In the aftermath of terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris, the immigrant screening process has been singled out as a major vulnerability in the nation’s defense against terrorism.

Lawmakers from both parties have endorsed making it harder for people to enter the United States if they have recently been in Iraq or Syria. Donald Trump, a Republican presidential candidate, has said there should be a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

Although President Obama has cautioned against “a betrayal of our values” in the way the United States responds to threats, he has ordered a review of the K-1 visa program, which allows foreigners to move to the United States to marry Americans, putting them on a pathway to permanent residence and, ultimately, citizenship.

The Obama administration is trying to determine whether those background checks can be expanded without causing major delays in the popular program.

In an attempt to ensure they did not miss threats from men and women who entered the country the same way Malik did, immigration officials are also reviewing all of about 90,000 K-1 visas issued in the past two years and are considering a moratorium on new ones while they determine whether changes should be made.

Malik faced three extensive national security and criminal background screenings. First, Homeland Security officials checked her name against American law enforcement and national security databases. Then, her visa application went to the State Department, which checked her fingerprints against other databases. Finally, after coming to the United States and formally marrying Farook, she applied for her green card and received another round of checks.

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