The FBI was more interested in forcing Apple to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s cellphone rather look at other options in a time-sensitive investigation, a group of bipartisan members of Congress said Friday.
In a letter to FBI Directory Christopher Wray, the representatives said the bureau was more interested in squeezing Apple than cracking the case.
After the December 2015 terror attack in which Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 17 people, the FBI sought to gather evidence from Farook’s iPhone. In a March 2016 lawsuit, the FBI alleged it could not access Farook’s phone without Apple’s assistance.
That claim was assailed by tech experts and even members of Congress who charged that the FBI’s extensive technical capabilities would surely have some method to unlock an iPhone.
“How the hell you can’t access a phone, I find just baffling,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, to former FBI Director James B. Comey during his testimony before Congress.
Ultimately, the phone was opened without Apple’s assistance.
Mr. Comey testified twice before Congress on Feb. 9 and March 1 and said the FBI was not in possession of any means to unlock Farook’s iPhone and said assistance from Apple was necessary.
The former FBI director was telling the truth when he testified, but that was only because no one had told him third-party vendors could access the phone, Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz said in a report last month.
Mr. Horowitz also concluded that a miscommunication between the FBI’s technology units created a delay in reaching out to the a third party vendor that could unlock the phone.
But some members of Congress said Mr. Horowitz’s report shows the FBI wanted to push the Apple lawsuit forward rather than consult with a third-party vendor or its own technology staff.
“This report undermines statements that the FBI made during the San Bernardino litigation and consistently since then, that only the device manufacturer could provide a solution. Moreover, recent reports that companies such as Cellebrite and GrayShift have developed tools to cheaply unlock nearly every phone on the market, including every version of iOS, raise even more concerns that the FBI has not been forthcoming about the extent of the “Going Dark” problem,” the representatives said.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Democrat California, released the letter and was joined by Reps. Darrell Issa, California Republican; Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat; James Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin Republican; Ted Lieu, California Democrat; Ted Poe, Texas Republican; Jared Polls, Colorado Democrat; Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican; Suzan Delbene, Washington Democrat; and Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican.
GrayShift is already unlocking phones for the State Department at a cost of about $50 per phone, according to the letter
The representatives asked Mr. Wray five questions about the FBI’s ability to unlock iPhones and what efforts the bureau has used to access devices. They also requested he respond with answers “as soon as possible.”
Last month, the FBI said it will reorganize its technology division to improve coordination and communication in response to the inspector general report.