NEW YORK—The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University today published newly obtained documents from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) indicating that the controversial policy of requiring visa applicants to register their social media handles with the State Department—a policy adopted by the Trump administration but continued by the Biden administration—has been useless from a security standpoint. The documents, obtained by the Knight Institute in FOIA litigation, also suggest that some government officials worried that publicly acknowledging the ineffectiveness of the policy would make it more difficult for the government to collect social media handles in the future. The Biden administration’s report about the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the social media vetting program was completed in October 2021, but the administration has refused to release it.

“We already knew that the policy of requiring visa applicants to register their social media handles infringed the expressive and associational rights of millions of people, but now we know that the policy is totally ineffective as well,” said Anna Diakun, a Knight Institute staff attorney. “It’s long past time for this intrusive surveillance policy to be retired.”

In 2019, the State Department started requiring almost all visa applicants to provide the social media handles that they’ve used in the five years preceding their applications. The Trump administration instituted this policy as part of its extreme vetting initiative, and the Biden administration has continued it. Though President Biden ordered a report assessing the utility of social media handles in visa vetting on his first day in office, the administration has yet to disclose its findings.

Included in today’s documents is an April 2021 email chain concerning the National Counterterrorism Center’s (NCTC) assessment that its use of social media identifiers in the vetting process has “very little impact on improving the screening accuracy of relevant systems.” An ODNI official raises concerns that the current language in the report “will reflect a negative perspective on the usefulness of social media identifiers,” noting that “the NGO’s [sic] are planning on gaining access to this report.” The participants on the email chain then discuss “recrafting the language” of NCTC’s assessment.

In 2019, the Knight Institute, Brennan Center for Justice, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett filed a lawsuit on behalf of two documentary film organizations—Doc Society and the International Documentary Association—challenging the State Department’s mandatory collection of social media handles on the grounds that it infringes on filmmakers’ freedom of expression and interferes with Americans’ ability to engage with artists, advocates, and others located abroad. A federal district court dismissed this lawsuit in August. The documents released today call into question whether the government believes the social media registration requirement is necessary, or even effective, in conducting the visa vetting process. 

Read the newly released documents:

Read the Knight Institute’s February 2022 FOIA request here.

Read more about the Knight Institute’s April 2022 FOIA lawsuit, Knight Institute v. State Department here 

Lawyers on the case include Diakun, Carrie DeCell, and Hannah Vester of the Knight First Amendment Institute.

For more information, contact: Adriana Lamirande, [email protected]