Four memos were sent to American embassies in the course of past two weeks. According to Reuters, they provide details into a revised screening process that President Donald Trump has described as "extreme vetting". But the practice was "rarely" performed by consular officials as it led to significant delays in processing visa applications, one former official who wished to remain anonymous, told Reuters.
The State Department cables, all marked "sensitive" but not classified, direct embassies to convene security and intelligence working groups to determine "a list of criteria identifying sets of post applicant populations warranting increased scrutiny". However, the cables do illustrate a renewed focus on the vetting of visa applicants by the DOS, including the potential review of visa applicants' social media, Maryland-based Murthy law firm, which processes visa and immigration issues, said in a cautious advisory.
Among the instructions rescinded by Tillerson were a set of specific questions for applicants from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, the countries targeted by Trump's March 6 executive order, as well as members of populations identified as security risks.
"All visa decisions are national security decisions", he added.
"The travel community has been deferential to this new administration, whose charge it is to keep us safe", said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow in a written release.
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"There's so much social media out there", said Anne Richard, a former US assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration. The memos were part of Tillerson's plan to implement Trump's revised executive order on banning Muslims, which was frozen in federal court in Hawaii hours before it was supposed to go into effect on March 16.
Tillerson's cable also restricts the number of interviews one visa officer can do every day.
The cable sent on March 15th, based on seven pages, Tillerson was provided to The New York Times, made it clear that the process of getting entry visa is about to get tougher at diplomatic posts around the globe.
Among those warranting deepened scrutiny are applicants who have ever been "present in an ISIS-controlled territory". Missing that session only would have fed the criticism that Tillerson hasn't played a central role in White House decisions on foreign policy.
The 15 March cable suggests questions should include an applicant's travel history, addresses, and work history for 15 years, and all phone numbers, email addresses, and social media handles used in the past 5 years.