Citing 9/11, CIA head backs FBI in Apple standoff

Getty Images

CIA Director John Brennan on Monday appeared to back the FBI’s push for Apple to create new software bypassing its security mechanisms on an iPhone of one of the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorists.

The spy chief evoked the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in comments at a kickoff event for a State Department event on global partnerships.

ADVERTISEMENT
“This is a challenge, and I’m just saying that when I think about the risks that are out there and the threats that are out there — and I’ve had insight into some of what these people and organizations planning to do — and I say to myself, ‘Boy we had the tragedy of 9/11,’” Brennan said.

“We never want to see this homeland devastated again. If the bureau has the opportunity to gain some insights — and if an independent judge in a court of law says that there is a legitimate basis of the bureau to have access to something, whether it's in a safety deposit box or a house or a storage bin or in someone’s document holder, which is an electronic device — is there not some obligation on the part of the product developer to ensure that the government can fulfill its responsibilities?”

Brennan has previously expressed support for the FBI’s position in an interview with NPR. But his comments on Monday appeared to double down on the stance, given the charged reference to 9/11.  

Apple has fiercely resisted the call from a federal magistrate judge in California, saying that the demand violates its rights under the Constitution.

The iPhone, which was used by Syed Rizwan Farook before the December attack in which he and his wife killed 14 people, is protected by encryption technology and mechanisms to prevent the agency from using “brute force” to guess the password and break in.

Last month, Judge Sheri Pym called for Apple to create new software to bypass those mechanisms and allow the FBI to guess Farook’s password. The San Bernardino district attorney has claimed that the phone may yield evidence of a “cyber pathogen,” though some security researchers have questioned the claim.  

The case in California is the highest profile standoff in a long-running debate about the proliferation of encrypted communications, which law enforcement officials warn is causing the actions of criminals and terrorists to “go dark.”

Privacy and security advocates who oppose the FBI’s position say that forcing Apple to access its users' data opens the door for repressive regimes in China and Russia to do the same.

But Brennan vehemently pushed back on that stance on Monday.

“Quite frankly I take issue with any of those claims of either a moral, legal, social or cultural equivalency [between] the United States and our emphasis on the rule of law and a lot of those authoritarian regimes overseas,” he said. “They abuse and misuse a lot of their authorities right now.”