Former FBI Director James B. Comey was truthful when he told Congress that the bureau didn’t have the ability to unlock a iPhone belonging to gunman responsible for the December 2015 terror attack in San Bernardino, California, the Department of Justice’s inspector general concluded in a new report.
However, the inspector general also found that miscommunication among the FBI’s technology units resulted in a delay in obtaining the assistance from a third party to unlock the cellphone belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 17 people in the attack.
In March 2016, the FBI filed a lawsuit alleging it could not access Farook’s phone without Apple’s assistance. But 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 just find baffling,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, to Mr. Comey during the director’s testimony before Congress.
But Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz found Apple’s advanced security features made it impossible for FBI agents to use known techniques to unlock the phone without risking the permanent destruction of critical data.
“We found that, at the time then-Director Comey testified on February 9 and March 1, the FBI was not in possession of any means to access the data on the Farook iPhone and believed assistance from Apple would be required,” Mr. Horowitz wrote.
Ultimately, the FBI found a way to unlock the phone without Apple’s assistance.
Mr. Horowitz did note that improved communication between the FBI’s Remote Operations Unit and its Operational Technology Division would have averted the Apple lawsuit. The report found the ROU had a relationship with a third party that could unlock the iPhone, but it did not notify bureau leaders until after Mr. Comey’s testimony.
The FBI said it is reorganizing its technology division to improve coordination and communication, according to the report.
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at email@example.com.
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