FBI didn't make false statements about unlocking San Bernardino iPhone: watchdog

FBI didn't make false statements about unlocking San Bernardino iPhone: watchdog
© Getty Images

Top FBI officials did not make inaccurate statements before Congress and in court filings about the bureau’s ability to unlock an iPhone belonging to an alleged shooter in the 2015 San Bernardino terror attack, the Justice Department watchdog said Tuesday.

However, the internal probe into the case did turn up evidence that miscommunication within the bureau resulted in a delayed solution to accessing data stored on the device, which the FBI needed as part of its investigation into the December 2015 attack.


The Justice Department inspector general launched the inquiry after a senior FBI official expressed concerns that a unit in the FBI’s Operational Technology Division (OTD) may have had techniques to access data stored on the phone but didn’t use them, which would have prompted then-FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyMystery surrounds Justice's pledge on journalist records NYT publisher: DOJ phone records seizure a 'dangerous incursion' on press freedom Trump DOJ seized phone records of New York Times reporters MORE to make inaccurate statements before Congress. 

Comey testified before Congress in early February and March 2016 that the FBI could not access data stored on the phone and would need help from Apple to unlock the device, statements echoed by another official in April.

The iPhone belonged to Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the suspects who was killed in a firefight with police following the attack on Dec. 2, 2015.

A court order was later filed to secure Apple’s cooperation, but the tech giant fought the order. The case provoked intense debate over data privacy.

The FBI eventually paid a third-party firm $900,000 to unlock the iPhone at the end of March.

“The OIG has conducted inquiries into the situation, including interviewing relevant key participants, and found no evidence that OTD had the capability to exploit the Farook iPhone at the time of the Congressional testimony and initial court filings,” the report released by DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz says.

“However, we found that inadequate communication and coordination within OTD caused a delay in engaging all relevant OTD personnel in the search for a technical solution to the Farook iPhone problem, as well as the outside party that ultimately developed the method that unlocked the phone, issues that we learned the FBI has since taken steps to address,” the report says.

Specifically, investigators discovered a key official at the FBI only began reaching out to vendors about a potential technical fix to the problem the day before the court filing was made, and was not brought on to help before Comey’s testimony. His unit, called the Remote Operations Unit, was the one that eventually found the solution for accessing the phone via a third party. 

The FBI challenged the notion that there was a delay in unlocking the device.

The bureau informed investigators that it is working to consolidate resources to address the issue of “going dark,” a common term used to describe when law enforcement cannot gain access to encrypted data for ongoing investigations. Officials also said they would improve coordination between units working on computer and mobile devices.

FBI Director Christopher Wray and other officials have been sounding alarm over the challenge posed by encryption, saying that officials were unable to access data stored on nearly 7,800 devices last fiscal year for investigations, despite court orders.