Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly pauses while speaking at a news conference at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection headquarters in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly pauses while speaking at a news conference at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection headquarters in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017 AP / Andrew Harnik

Some DHS Employees Are Suspicious of 'Extreme Vetting'

The Department of Homeland Security has 30 days to figure out what "extreme vetting" means. Some DHS officials and counterterrorism experts find the concept dubious.

No one’s sure yet what constitutes “extreme vetting,” the screening standard invented by Donald Trump on the campaign trail and soon to be applied to people who want to visit the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries. It might include a check on phone records and social-media activity, the head of the Department of Homeland Security said yesterday. But TSA’s own counter-terrorism experts are far from convinced that this is a useful step, and some say existing measures are already extreme.

DHS has 30 days from the date of the executive order to define the standard, Secretary John Kelly told reporters Tuesday.

One TSA official, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter, said phone-record checks wouldn’t be of much use in screening visa applications. Why would criminals, terrorists, or other national-security threats use phones that could be traced to them?

A former Army intelligence analyst said collecting digital footprints can make it harder for terrorists to operate. When he was doing counter-terror operations in Iraq, he found that insurgents and terrorists “always leave digital breadcrumbs. People always screw up. When I was in Iraq, we were tracking networks of people. I was asked, ‘won’t they get wise?’ I said, if they stop talking on the phone, we’ve won. It decreases their means to communicate. And someone always screws up.…someone will inevitably call their girlfriend or wife,” he said.

The former Army analyst said both the travel ban and “extreme vetting” would be counter-productive. “Calling out and segregating a section of the population like refugees is not a good idea,” he said. “I think the process we have, or had, is sufficient if you look at the data. Intel is a game of resources. If I have a finite amount of resources, I would send those resources to where there is a known threat.”

No evidence has been presented to indicate that refugees from the travel-ban countries pose a threat.  Since 2001, some 784,000 refugees have been settled in the United States, many from countries on the ban list. A record number, some 85,000, came into the country last year, according to Pew research. Yet there has never been a deadly terrorist attack on American soil by  a refugee from a country on the travel ban list.

The analyst said that the Israeli security model probably made more sense than a blanket ban. Travelers who enter Israeli airports may be interviewed multiple times in person, and even before they actually set foot in the airport terminal. The thinking is that someone who poses a threat is more likely to betray that fact to an observant human asking them questions than in their answers on a paper form.

“The Israelis do it really well. It’s random the way that they do it. You have to randomize it,” the analyst said.

Kelly said extreme vetting might start by improving how U.S. officials verify that refugees and would-be visitors are who they say they are, which is not always easy when they come from countries with different standards of recordkeeping.  

There are a “number of countries on the planet that don't have that kind of records keeping, police work, that kind of thing" that could allow authorities to better know travelers’ intentions, he said. Iran, Yemen, Iraq, Sudan and the other countries on the travel ban list "right now, for the most part, fall into that category,” Kelly said.

Refugees Are Already "Vetted, Extremely” Well

For U.S. officials, it’s actually easier to verify the identity of a refugee than an applicant for a tourist or student visa, simply because other organizations have already put in the work.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, is the agency that registers refugees fleeing places like Syria. They collect fingerprint data and photographs and conduct detailed background interviews.  “UN workers determine whether a refugee falls into any of about 45 ‘categories of concern,’ from serving in particular government ministries or military units to being in specific locations at specific times, even missing family members,” Defense One’s Molly O’Toole reported in 2015.

When a refugee applies for resettlement in the United States, DHS conducts its own screening, running applicants’ names against the databases of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center and the National Counterterrorism Center. The U.S. also conducts its own in-person interviews, drawing heavily on UNHCR data. In many cases, DHS officials simply re-ask the refugee the same questions from the UNHCR interview.

A Customs and Border Protection official who worked with refugees said that the UN information works just great.

“There’s nothing wrong with the data that we’re getting. In fact, I would prefer to trust that data more and re-collect less,” the CBP official said, requesting anonymity. “There are reasons to ask the same questions multiple times, just to make sure that the story is consistent, but there are other points where we don’t need to ask them, ‘Where were you born?’ five times.”

The CBP official said that concerns about the UNHCR’s ability to conduct interviews and background checks were unfounded.

“The UN, are they a bunch of refugee-huggers trying to get every refugee somewhere? In meeting with them, the answer is no,” the CBP official said “They need to make sure that their process is robust in order to maintain their legitimacy. They rely on host countries. If those countries lose faith that the UN is being objective and back out, the UN loses, in terms of resettlement as a solution.”

This presents DHS with a problem. If it wants to stop relying on UNHCR, it’s going to have to  send TSA agents out to far-flung ports around the world, where they will be largely duplicating the work the UN is doing, and doing adequately, according to at least some at DHS.

All of those questions will need to be answered before DHS will be able to communicate clearly what “extreme vetting” is.

Then there is the question of what exactly to do with social media data. The idea of using social information from platforms such as Twitter and Facebook as part of a vetting process is not new. The Obama administration was toying with the idea of letting people voluntarily submit social media info in exchange for faster screening back in 2016.

John Costello, a senior analyst at the firm Flashpoint, a company that provides threat intelligence derived from the deep and dark web, says that someone’s Facebook or Twitter page can be a part of an overall understanding of who that person is but probably does not work as a means to disqualify someone from travel. “I think it will be an extremely helpful method for getting people through quickly,” he said. So if a border agent or officer were to encounter someone with a document that looked not exactly right, that traveler’s digital fingerprint could serve as a means of verifying that identity. “Say they do have a document that may be specious that gives an identity, but they have a phone that they’ve had for seven years that also matches with that identity, and they have a social media account that’s several years old that aligns with that identity. It’s a good indicator that that identity is positive," he said. 

Allison Nixon, the director of security research at Flashpoint, said that trying to use social media information to disqualify passengers would be much harder than simple ID verification. “ Your audience dictates what you show about yourself. I think people have this image in their head of a border agent looking through someone’s Facebook casually. It’s not possible to come to those conclusions [about disqualifying someone] so quickly.” She said that she might spend 40 hours or even more piecing together the disparate pieces of a person’s social media identity across multiple platforms. She could not imagine DHS performing those sorts of searches at the scale of the traveling public.

After the 30-day review to determine what Kelly called “weaknesses of our current immigration” system, DHS will develop, review, and issue new guidelines. At least some of those will be aimed at other nations, asking them to to change the way that they compile citizens’ records, he said.