US Attorney General William Barr asks Apple to unlock Pensacola killer's phones, setting up clash

Ali Kjergaard, a press assistant with the Justice Department, straightens pictures of two Apple iPhones that Attorney General William Barr said belonged to the Pensacola gunman at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, on Jan 13, 2020.
Ali Kjergaard, a press assistant with the Justice Department, straightens pictures of two Apple iPhones that Attorney General William Barr said belonged to the Pensacola gunman at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, on Jan 13, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US Attorney General William Barr declared on Monday (Jan 13) that a deadly shooting last month at a naval air station in Pensacola, Florida, was an act of terrorism, and he asked Apple in an unusually high-profile request to provide access to two phones used by the gunman.

Barr's appeal was an escalation of a continuing fight between the Justice Department and Apple pitting personal privacy against public safety.

"This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that the public be able to get access to digital evidence," Barr said.

He called on technology companies to find a solution and complained that Apple had provided no "substantive assistance", a charge that the company strongly denied on Monday night, saying it had been working with the FBI since the day of the shooting.

Detailing the results of the investigation into the Dec 6 shooting that killed three sailors and wounded eight others, Barr said the gunman, 2nd Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani - a Saudi air force cadet training with the US military - had displayed extremist leanings.

Alshamrani warned on last year's anniversary of the Sept 11 attacks that "the countdown has begun" and posted other anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadi social media messages, some within hours of attacking the base, Barr said.

"The evidence shows that the shooter was motivated by jihadist ideology," Barr said.

The government has also removed from the country some 21 Saudi students who trained with the US military, Barr said. He stressed that investigators found no connection to the shooting among the cadets but that some had ties to extremist movements or possessed child pornography. Barr said the cases were too weak to prosecute but that Saudi Arabia kicked the trainees out of the program.

The battle between the government and technology companies over advanced encryption and other digital security measures has simmered for years. Apple, which stopped routinely helping the government unlock phones in late 2014 as it adopted a more combative stance and unveiled a more secure operating system, has argued that data privacy is a human rights issue. If Apple developed a way to allow the US government into its phones, its executives argued, hackers or foreign governments like China would exploit the tool.

But frustrated law enforcement officials accuse Apple of providing a haven for criminals. They have long pushed for a legislative solution to the problem of "going dark", their term for how increasingly secure phones have made it harder to solve crimes, and the Pensacola investigation gives them a prominent chance to make their case.

In a statement on Monday night, Apple said the substantive aid it had provided law enforcement agencies included giving investigators access to the gunman's iCloud account and transaction data for multiple accounts.

 
 
 
 

The company's statement did not say whether Apple engineers would help the government get into the phones themselves.

It said that "Americans do not have to choose between weakening encryption and solving investigations" because there are now so many ways for the government to obtain data from Apple's devices - many of which Apple routinely helps the government execute.

It will not back down from its unequivocal support of encryption that is impossible to crack, people close to the company said.

Justice Department officials said that they needed access to Alshamrani's phones to see data and messages from encrypted apps like Signal or WhatsApp to determine whether he had discussed his plans with others at the base and whether he was acting alone or with help.

"We don't want to get into a world where we have to spend months and even years exhausting efforts when lives are in the balance," Barr said.

"We should be able to get in when we have a warrant that establishes that criminal activity is underway."

The confrontation echoed the legal standoff over an iPhone used by a gunman who killed 14 people in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, in late 2015.

Apple defied a court order to assist the FBI in its efforts to search his device, setting off a fight over whether privacy enabled by impossible-to-crack encryption harmed public safety.

The San Bernardino dispute was resolved when the FBI found a private company to bypass the iPhone's encryption. Tensions between the two sides, however, remained, and Apple worked to ensure that neither the government nor private contractors could open its phones.

Apple typically complies with court orders to turn over information on its servers and has given investigators materials from Alshamrani's iCloud account but said that it would turn over only the data it had, implying that it would not work to unlock the phones.

Investigators secured a court order within a day of the shooting allowing them to search the phones, Barr said. He turned up the pressure on Apple a week after the FBI's top lawyer, Dana Boente, asked the company for help searching Alshamrani's iPhones.

Officials said that the FBI was still trying to gain access to the phones on its own and approached Apple only after asking other government agencies, foreign governments and third-party technology vendors for help, to no avail.

The devices were older models: an iPhone 7 with a fingerprint reader and an iPhone 5, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

Justice Department officials said that investigators have yet to make a final determination about whether Alshamrani conspired with others. They said that the Saudi government was offering "unprecedented" cooperation but that "we need to get into those phones".

Barr and other law enforcement officials described a 15-minute shootout before security officers shot and killed Alshamrani. During the firefight, Alshamrani paused at one point to shoot one of his phones once, Barr said, adding that his other phone was also damaged but that the FBI was able to repair them well enough to be searched.

Alshamrani also shot at photographs of President Donald Trump and one of his predecessors, David Bowdich, the deputy director of the FBI, said. A person familiar with the investigation identified the unnamed president as George W. Bush.

Alshamrani's weapon was lawfully purchased in Florida under an exemption that allows non-immigrant visa holders to buy firearms if they have a valid hunting license or permit, officials said.

Law enforcement officials have continued to discuss Alshamrani's phones with Apple, they said.

"We're not trying to weaken encryption, to be clear," Bowdich said at the news conference, noting that the issue has come up with thousands of devices that investigators want to see in other cases.

"We talk about this on a daily basis," he said. Bowdich was the bureau's top agent overseeing the San Bernardino investigation and was part of the effort to push Apple to crack into the phone in that case.