FBI Director Says San Bernardino Shooters Didn’t Post Public Social Media Messages

FBI Director James Comey

FBI Director James Comey Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/AP

The attackers sent messages, but they were private and couldn’t have been caught by intelligence.

Did Amer­ic­an in­tel­li­gence miss cru­cial warn­ing signs about San Bern­ardino shoot­ers Syed Rizwan Farook and Tash­feen Ma­lik? FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey sought to dampen spec­u­la­tion Wed­nes­day morn­ing, speak­ing with New York Po­lice Com­mis­sion­er Bill Brat­ton.

For years be­fore they at­tacks, “they are com­mu­nic­at­ing on­line, show­ing signs in that com­mu­nic­a­tion of their joint com­mit­ment to ji­had and to mar­tyr­dom,” he said. “Those com­mu­nic­a­tions are private dir­ect mes­sages.”

In fact, he said, there was no evid­ence of pub­lic post­ings that might have raised red flags.

“So far in this in­vest­ig­a­tion, we have found no evid­ence of post­ing on so­cial me­dia by either of them at that peri­od of time and there­after re­flect­ing their com­mit­ment to ji­had and to mar­tyr­dom,” Comey said. “I’ve seen some re­port­ing on that and that’s a garble. The in­vest­ig­a­tion con­tin­ues, but we have not found that kind of thing.”

Soon after the at­tacks, mul­tiple news or­gan­iz­a­tions re­por­ted, gen­er­ally with Face­book’s say-so, that Ma­lik had pos­ted on Face­book a pledge of al­le­gi­ance to Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, the IS­IS chief. At the time, the FBI merely said it was aware of the re­ports. But in re­cent days, news re­ports have raised ques­tions about wheth­er the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment should have no­ticed post­ings by Ma­lik that might have tele­graphed her in­ten­tion to con­duct an at­tack. Ac­cord­ing to some re­ports, U.S. in­vest­ig­at­ors are barred from even check­ing the so­cial-me­dia pres­ence of visa ap­plic­ants.

Dur­ing Tues­day’s Re­pub­lic­an de­bate, can­did­ate Carly Fior­ina blas­ted the pro­cess.

“For heav­en’s sakes, every par­ent in Amer­ica is check­ing so­cial me­dia and every em­ploy­er is as well, but our gov­ern­ment can’t do it,” she said. “The bur­eau­crat­ic pro­ced­ures are so far be­hind. Our gov­ern­ment has be­come in­com­pet­ent, un­re­spons­ive, cor­rupt. And that in­com­pet­ence, in­eptitude, lack of ac­count­ab­il­ity is now dan­ger­ous.”

But Comey’s com­ments sug­gest that even if DHS’s policies are over­ripe for re­view, it might not have made much dif­fer­ence in this par­tic­u­lar case. While he de­clined to name the so­cial net­work or net­works in­volved, what Comey said cor­res­ponds with Los Angeles Times re­port from Monday that noted that in­vest­ig­at­ors have found private com­mu­nic­a­tions:

San Bern­ardino shoot­er Tash­feen Ma­lik sent at least two private mes­sages on Face­book to a small group of Pakistani friends in 2012 and 2014, pledging her sup­port for Is­lam­ic ji­had and say­ing she hoped to join the fight one day, two top fed­er­al law en­force­ment of­fi­cials said Monday.

As Comey noted Monday, the FBI does not—and, he im­pli­citly ar­gued, should not—comb through dir­ect com­mu­nic­a­tions that Amer­ic­an cit­izens send un­less there’s prob­able cause to be do­ing so. It’s not clear wheth­er metadata on this sort of mes­sage would have been swept up in the NSA’s col­lec­tion of in­form­a­tion. After wide­spread back­lash to the rev­el­a­tions provided by Ed­ward Snowden about mass sur­veil­lance, there’s been a turn to­ward a de­mand for great­er sur­veil­lance since the San Bern­ardino at­tacks, both in pub­lic polling and by politi­cians.

The mes­sages were also, Comey said, gen­er­al in nature—about a com­mit­ment to ji­had, rather than about spe­cif­ic plots.

Comey’s com­ments leave some im­port­ant ques­tions un­answered. The way that of­fi­cials talk about in­ter­net tools is of­ten un­usu­al or some­what opaque.

“These com­mu­nic­a­tions are private dir­ect mes­sages, not so­cial-me­dia mes­sages,” he said. Comey offered no in­dic­a­tion he was con­tra­dict­ing news re­ports of Ma­lik’s Face­book pledge of al­le­gi­ance, though his com­ments could be read to do so.

The fact that the mes­sages in ques­tion were private, bey­ond the reas­on­able ken of law en­force­ment and well past con­sti­tu­tion­al lim­it­a­tions, is yet an­oth­er in­dic­a­tion of the steep chal­lenge Amer­ic­an of­fi­cials face in try­ing to stop homegrown at­tack­ers who are in­spired by IS­IS or oth­er ter­ror­ist groups but ap­pear to be act­ing largely autonom­ously, without in­struc­tion from known ter­ror­ist lead­ers.

In the wake of an at­tack like this, it seems like di­git­al evid­ence ought to have provided a key to stop­ping the carnage. But the evid­ence so far sug­gests the best chances at pre­ven­tion would have been en­tirely ana­log: if someone in the fam­ily had re­por­ted the couple’s stock­pil­ing of weapons, or giv­en cre­dence to the mut­ter­ings of a friend of Farook’s. So­cial me­dia may have changed the way people live their lives, but some of the most im­port­ant crime-fight­ing tech­niques are cen­tur­ies old.