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.

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“They have changed their position so many times,” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenWyden blasts FEC Republicans for blocking probe into NRA over possible Russia donations Wyden calls for end to political ad targeting on Facebook, Google Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity MORE (D-Ore.), an Intelligence Committee member, told The Hill. “They have to tell us what’s going on.”

Sens. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrHoekstra emerges as favorite for top intelligence post Trump casts uncertainty over top intelligence role Trump withdraws Ratcliffe as Intelligence pick MORE (R-N.C.) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinTrump administration urges Congress to reauthorize NSA surveillance program The Hill's Morning Report - More talk on guns; many questions on Epstein's death Juan Williams: We need a backlash against Big Tech 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 Stanley KingNew intel chief inherits host of challenges Senators ask for committee vote on 'red flag' bills after shootings Top Democrat: 'Disqualifying' if Trump intel pick padded his résumé 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 CarperAmerica is in desperate need of infrastructure investment: Senate highway bill a step in the right direction FARA should apply to Confucius Institutes The 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal 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.