'Extreme vetting' covers social media use, phone records

US Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly arrives for a meeting on cyber security in the Roosevelt Room of the White House Jan 31, 2017 in Washington, DC.
US Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly arrives for a meeting on cyber security in the Roosevelt Room of the White House Jan 31, 2017 in Washington, DC.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • Travellers from seven predominantly Muslim countries singled out for "extreme vetting" will face scrutiny of their social media footprint and phone records, said the new United States Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

On Tuesday, Mr Kelly sought to explain President Donald Trump's travel ban four days after he issued it with no warning, setting off mass protests, legal challenges and confusion.

"There are many countries, seven that we are dealing with right now, that in our view and my view don't have the kind of law enforcement, records-keeping, that kind of thing, that can convince us that one of their citizens is indeed who that citizen says they are," he said at a press conference.

For that reason, he said, the US authorities will investigate visa applicants' social media use and telephone contacts, "so that we can see who they are talking to".

On Friday, Mr Trump ordered a suspension of arrivals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, as well as all refugees.

With the move under widespread criticism, Mr Kelly denied it specifically targets Muslims, which could violate the US Constitution. "And a relatively small number right now are being held up for a period of time until we can take a look at what their procedures are," he said.

Mr Trump's order halted immigration from the seven countries for at least 90 days, but Mr Kelly suggested that for some, the ban could go on longer if stronger vetting procedures are not in place once the review period has elapsed.

"Some of those countries that are on the list may not be taken off the list anytime soon. There are countries that are in various states of collapse, for example," Mr Kelly said, without offering specifics.

The sudden order caught many US immigration gateways and foreign airlines by surprise, resulting in many people with legal US residency being blocked from boarding aircraft for the US or being detained upon arrival.

US Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan cleared up an issue that had impacted many travellers with dual nationalities, saying they could enter the US as long as the passport they present is acceptable. That clarification got a cheer from Europe's Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos, who tweeted after speaking by phone with Mr Kelly: "Glad that issue of EU (European Union) dual nationals is resolved."

Mr McAleenan, meanwhile, said that through Monday, 721 people had been denied boarding while more than 1,000 people were granted waivers from the Trump order to allow them to enter the country.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2017, with the headline ''Extreme vetting' covers social media use, phone records'. Print Edition | Subscribe