FBI to brief senators on San Bernardino iPhone hack

FBI to brief senators on San Bernardino iPhone hack
© Greg Nash

The FBI will soon brief the Senate Intelligence Committee on how it hacked an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, according to the committee’s leaders.

The decision comes amid pressure from lawmakers who are questioning whether the FBI told the truth during its recent standoff with Apple over an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two terrorists behind the California attack.


“They have changed their position so many times,” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse | Trump administration awards tech group contract to build 'virtual' wall | Advocacy groups urge Congress to ban facial recognition technologies Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic proposal to extend 0 unemployment checks MORE (D-Ore.), an Intelligence Committee member, told The Hill. “They have to tell us what’s going on.”

Sens. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrBiden campaign adds staff in three battleground states Exclusive investigation on the coronavirus pandemic: Where was Congress? Trump asserts his power over Republicans MORE (R-N.C.) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinBottom line Filibuster reform gains steam with Democrats Senate panel votes 21-1 to back Justice IG measure over Graham objections MORE (D-Calif.) — the Intelligence Committee’s leaders — said a briefing is in the works, but that some particulars may be kept classified.

The FBI has already informed both Burr and Feinstein about its hacking tactics.

“I think that the important thing for the committee," Burr said, is learning the method fit "within the letter of the law." 

"The sensitivity of it may dictate that there’s less specifics communicated to members than more,” he added, leaving a committee meeting on Thursday.

Any attempt to withhold information could frustrate FBI critics, such as Wyden, who believe the agency was using the emotionally-charged terror case in San Bernardino to set a precedent that would allow investigators to access other locked devices.

In February, the FBI said it was impossible to crack shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone without Apple’s help, and took the tech giant to court to make it unlock the phone.

But the agency surprisingly reversed course in late March, announcing that it been shown a novel hacking tactic not requiring Apple’s assistance. The Justice Department subsequently dropped its case.

Capitol Hill critics such as Wyden say the whiplash highlights the FBI’s ever-changing position on encryption.

“It’s time for the FBI and the DOJ to stop throwing spaghetti against the wall and hoping something will stick,” Wyden said in a Medium post Thursday.

In a separate case in Brooklyn, the FBI on Friday said it will continue to seek Apple’s help in unlocking the iPhone of a convicted drug trafficker. The decision shows that the courtroom battle over government access to encrypted devices is far from over.

The Obama administration, Wyden said, “has had trouble being straight with the American people about what it wants.”

It’s not just Wyden and FBI critics that wants more details on the iPhone hack. The bureau’s backers believe the agency should be talking to the Intelligence panel.

“I think it’s important for the Intelligence Committee to understand some of this, yes,” Feinstein told reporters this week. “But I think parts of it should remain classified.”

Feistein is working with Burr on a bill that would allow the FBI to force companies like Apple to provide “technical assistance” to the FBI when it requests encrypted data.

Other Intel panel members, such as Sen. Angus KingAngus KingMcConnell on filibuster talk: Democrats want to 'vandalize' Senate rules Manchin draws line against repealing legislative filibuster Filibuster reform gains steam with Democrats MORE (I-Maine), told The Hill they’re interested in whatever the FBI is able to offer.

“I suppose it’s always good to have information, so we’ll see what they tell us,” King said this week.

Outside the Intelligence panel, Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperHillicon Valley: Facebook to label 'newsworthy' posts that violate policies | Unilever to pull ads from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram | FEC commissioner steps down Senate Democrats push federal agencies to combat coronavirus scams and robocalls The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Mark Takano says Congress must extend worker benefits expiring in July; WHO reports record spike in global cases MORE (Del.), the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s top Democrat, said he has also reached out to the FBI about how it cracked Farook’s phone.

Burr indicated that his briefing didn’t include a complete technical run-down, perhaps giving a preview of what other senators might learn.

“I’m not sure that the committee or the chairman, or the vice chairman, will know exactly how it was accessed,” he said.