FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday that the husband and wife team that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, last week were talking to each other as far back as 2013 about committing violence, before they were engaged and she received a visa allowing her into the United States.
The revelation raises questions about how Pakistani national Tashfeen Malik was able to obtain a K-1 fiancée visa to enter the United States in July of 2014 and then a green card giving her permanent residency after she married Syed Rizwan Farook, an American citizen, a month later.
The fact the pair were discussing “jihad and martyrdom” online before they apparently even met also raises questions about the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance program, which was in full force at the time and supported by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and whether the government should do more in the cyber-hunt for potential terrorists.
Feinstein is introducing a bill that would require social media companies to report “knowledge of any terrorist activity” – a proposal that Silicon Valley worries could lead to the violation of privacy of innocent users.
“We’re in a new age where terrorist groups like ISIL are using social media to reinvent how they recruit and plot attacks,” Feinstein said, using the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State. Malik reportedly pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in a Facebook posting shortly after the San Bernardino shootings.
FBI Director Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday that in 2013, even before the rise of the Islamic State, Malik and Farook were communicating with one another online.
“They were talking to each other about jihad and martyrdom before they became engaged and then married and lived together in the United States,” he said.
Comey said the killers had been radicalized for a long time, “before they started courting or dating each other online.”
He said the FBI believes the shooters were inspired by foreign organizations and investigators are trying to figure out details.
“We’re also working very hard to understand whether there was anybody else involved with assisting them, with supporting them, with equipping them,” Comey said. “And we’re working very, very hard to understand, did they have other plans, either for that day or earlier.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina asked Comey if their marriage might have been arranged by a terrorist organization. Comey said it’s unclear but “would be a very, very important thing to know.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said he has information that Malik lied in her visa application to enter the U.S.
“This is yet another example of the failure of the screening process for those entering the United States. Our government apparently didn’t catch the false address in Pakistan that she listed on her application,” Grassley said.
Feinstein criticized what she saw as another failure, allowing reporters into the killers’ apartment after the shootings. Feinstein said she was “appalled” and law enforcement should have blocked access.
Comey responded that the FBI was finished with the scene, and it was the landlord who let the press in.
Feinstein said there might be something that investigators later realize they want to search for in the apartment and “it just doesn’t seem to me to be smart” to allow access to the place.
Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is proposing significant changes in response to the terror attacks in Paris and California. One of her bills would forbid foreign travelers without a visa from coming to the U.S. unless they are fingerprinted and photographed abroad.
Her latest bill would require any company “engaged in providing an electronic communication service or a remote computing service to the public” to report any knowledge of terrorist activities to authorities.
“This bill doesn’t require companies to take any additional actions to discover terrorist activity, it merely requires them to report such activity to law enforcement when they come across it,” Feinstein said.
Feinstein said the information can help stop terrorist recruitment or an attack and “we need help from technology companies.”
The Software and Information Industry Association, though, said such a government demand carries its own dangers.
“It would require social media to simply turn over information on its users to the government, based on a vague determination of what constitutes a ‘terrorist activity,’ ” said Mark MacCarthy, vice president of the trade association, whose members include Facebook.
He said tech companies already work to stop the use of their systems for terrorist activity and “are diligent in disclosing relevant information to law enforcement.”
“The desire to do something, particularly in the wake of recent attacks, should not lead Congress to put more innocent people under government surveillance, without any evidence it would make us safer,” MacCarthy said.
Facebook said in a statement that it “has zero tolerance for terrorists, terror propaganda, or the praising of terror activity and we work aggressively to remove it as soon as we become aware of it. If we become aware of a threat of imminent harm or a planned terror attack, our terms permit us to provide that information to law enforcement and we do.”
Lawmakers are also talking about tighter requirements to obtain a so-called fiancé visa such as Malik used to enter the country.
“It is clearly vulnerable to infiltration, and provides an obvious route for jihadists and would-be jihadists to entry the country,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama.
Obtaining such a visa already requires background checks by the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, as well as an interview and additional screenings at a U.S. consulate. It’s not clear how the extensive process failed to reveal red flags about Malik.