On Monday, Attorney General Bill Barr and FBI Director Chris Wray slammed Apple for refusing to help them unlock the iPhones of the terrorist who launched a deadly terror attack at a Florida naval base last December. The two men announced that after they finally unlocked the phones, cellphone evidence showed the terrorist who launched the attack had been in contact with al Qaeda operatives for years.
The assailant, a Saudi military trainee who opened fire on the Naval Air Base Station in Pensacola and murdered three U.S. sailors while injuring eight other people, possessed iPhones, but in January, when the Department of Justice asked Apple to help unlock the phones, Apple refused.
Four months ago, I announced that this shooting was an act of terrorism. I also publicly asked Apple to help us access the locked contents of the two iPhones belonging to the deceased terrorist (assailant’s name). It was clear at that time that the phones were likely to contain valuable information. Indeed, (assailant) attempted to destroy both phones, even going so far as to disengage from the gunfight long enough to fire a bullet into one.
Within one day of the shootings, the FBI sought and obtained court orders, supported by probable cause, authorizing the FBI to search the contents of both phones as part of its investigation. The problem was that the phones were locked and the FBI did not have the passwords, so they needed help to get in. We asked Apple for assistance and so did the President. Unfortunately, Apple would not help us unlock the phones. Apple had deliberately designed them so that only the user — in this case, the terrorist — could gain access to their contents.
Today, I am pleased to announce that, thanks to the relentless efforts and ingenuity of FBI technicians, the FBI finally succeeded in unlocking (assailant’s) phones. The phones contained information previously unknown to us that definitively establishes (assailant’s) significant ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), not only before the attack, but before he even arrived in the United States. We now have a clearer understanding of (assailant’s) associations and activities in the years, months, and days leading up to the attack.
While the FBI’s hard work has led to an important breakthrough in this case that should be celebrated, I must also express my great disappointment that it took over four months and large sums of taxpayer dollars to obtain evidence that should be easily and quickly accessible with a court order.
Apple made a business and marketing decision to design its phones in such a way that only the user can unlock the contents no matter the circumstances. In cases like this, where the user is a terrorist, or in other cases, where the user is a violent criminal, human trafficker, or child predator, Apple’s decision has dangerous consequences for public safety and national security and is, in my judgment, unacceptable.
Apple’s desire to provide privacy for its customers is understandable, but not at all costs. Under our nation’s long-established constitutional principles, where a court authorizes a search for evidence of a crime, an individual’s privacy interests must yield to the broader needs of public safety. There is no reason why companies like Apple cannot design their consumer products and apps to allow for court-authorized access by law enforcement while maintaining very high standards of data security. Striking this balance should not be left to corporate boardrooms. It is a decision to be made by the American people through their representatives.
Wray added, “The evidence we’ve been able to develop in from the killer’s devices shows the Pensacola attack was the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation my a longtime AQAP associate.” AQAP refers to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and has “long been considered the global network’s most dangerous branch and has attempted to carry out attacks on the US mainland,” the Daily Mail reported.
Wray added that the difficulty FBI technicians had in unlocking the phones was “hard to overstate.” He said, “We received effectively no help from Apple. We canvassed every partner and company out there that may have had a solution, but none did, so we did it ourselves. Unfortunately, the technique that we developed is not a fix for our broader Apple problem – but it has made a huge difference in this investigation. While we’re thanking FBI technicians, we should also be thinking about the cost of all that work. Public servants already swamped with important things to do to protect the American people had to spend all that time just to access evidence that we had court-authorized search warrants for months ago.”
Wray continued by noting the delay in unlocking the phones “seriously hampered this investigation. Finally getting our hands on the evidence (the assailant) tried to keep from us is great – but we really needed it months ago, back in December.” He theorized that contacts of the assailant now had months to “concoct and compare stories with co-conspirators, destroy evidence, and disappear. As a result, there’s a lot we can’t do at this point that we could have done months ago.”
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