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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cruz Wrong on San Bernardino Shooter

Sen. Ted Cruz claimed that the woman involved in the San Bernardino, California, shooting had “publicly posted on social media calls to jihad,” but the Obama administration had refused to look at social media in the visa vetting process. There were no such public messages, according to the director of the FBI.

Cruz made his claim in response to the March 22 terrorist bombings in Brussels. In speaking to reporters that day, the Republican presidential candidate said, “It is time for us to implement serious vetting and we should not be allowing anyone to come to this country that we cannot vet to make sure that they are not radical Islamic terrorists.” And he went on to give an example:

Cruz, March 22: And I would note if you look at the San Bernardino terrorists, the female terrorist had publicly posted on social media calls to jihad. And yet the Obama administration in yet another nod to political correctness refused to even to look to social media.

The next day, in an interview on CNN with anchor Chris Cuomo, Cruz repeated the claim about the San Bernardino female shooter:

Cruz, March 23: I’ll give you another example of how political correctness is costing lives. The San Bernardino terrorist, the female terrorist, posted publicly on social media a call to jihad. The Obama administration refused to look at social media because they didn’t think it would be politically correct to look at social media. We’ve got a threat …

Cuomo: There were some legal issues also. I’m sure you understand.

Cruz: There are no legal barriers to monitoring public — public social media displays, particularly overseas.

The Dec. 2, 2015, shooting in San Bernardino that left 14 dead was carried out by Syed Rizwan Farook, who was born in the United States, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, who came to the U.S. from Pakistan in July 2014 on a K-1 fiancee visa. Farook and Malik were killed in a police shootout.

FBI Director James B. Comey said on Dec. 16, 2015, that the online communication the FBI had found from late 2013 between the two San Bernardino shooters was in “direct private messages.” Comey said: “So far in this investigation we have found no evidence of the posting on social media by either of them at that period of time and thereafter reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom.”

Comey called news reports on the couple making social media postings “a garble.” He said: “The investigation continues, but we have not found that kind of thing. These communications are private, direct messages, not social media messages.”

In fact, after Comey made those remarks, the New York Times ran an editors’ note to a Dec. 12 story headlined “U.S. Visa Process Missed San Bernardino Wife’s Online Zealotry.” The editors’ note said that the story originally reported, “based on accounts from law enforcement officials,” that Malik had “‘talked openly on social media’ about her support for violent jihad.” The Times quoted Comey’s remarks and said that law enforcement officials later told the paper that the communications in question were private.

New York Times Editors’ Note, Dec. 18, 2015: Law enforcement officials subsequently told The Times that Ms. Malik communicated with her husband in emails and private messages, and on a dating site. Ms. Malik’s comments to Mr. Farook about violent jihad were made on a messaging platform, officials said. Neither Mr. Comey nor other officials identified the specific platforms that were used. (This article and headline have been revised to reflect the new information.)

The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote about the “faulty” original report, which relied on anonymous sources. Sullivan quoted Executive Editor Dean Baquet as saying, “This was a really big mistake.”

Cruz further claimed that the Obama administration, in its vetting procedures, “refused to look at social media because they didn’t think it would be politically correct.” He said that “political correctness is costing lives.” The vetting process by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services doesn’t regularly include looking at social media, the New York Times reported.

ABC News reported on Dec. 14 that the Department of Homeland Security had a policy prohibiting the review of social media of visa applicants. Based on the comments of John Cohen, a former acting undersecretary at DHS, and two other unnamed counterterrorism officials, ABC News reported that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson decided to keep the policy in early 2014 because of a concern about civil liberties and “bad public relations.” A DHS spokeswoman told ABC News that pilot programs on including a social media review began later that year.

Whether that amounts to “political correctness,” we’ll leave to readers. But even if officials vetting Malik’s visa application had reviewed her social media posts, they wouldn’t have readily uncovered private messages — and may not have been able to uncover them at all.

We asked the Cruz campaign what public social media posts he was referencing, but we haven’t received a response. BuzzFeed reported that a Cruz spokesman told the news site that a Facebook post Malik made in the midst of the San Bernardino attack supported the presidential candidate’s claims. But, as BuzzFeed also noted, Cruz’s remarks were clearly about supposed public posts Malik made well before the attacks — in fact, before she was given a visa to enter the United States.

The Facebook post was made under an assumed name the day of the shooting and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group, according to media reports.